Bihar Elections: No Longer Bipolar And Predictable
People ride motorcycles over a bridge past election billboard advertisements in Patna, Bihar. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

Bihar Elections: No Longer Bipolar And Predictable

BloombergQuintOpinion

Before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world was notionally divided between north and south. The developed countries were aggregated as the north, and the south as developing and underdeveloped countries. If India is considered to be in the south, then Bihar is south of the south. In other words, Bihar is the most underdeveloped part of India. In some sense, Bihar can be referred to as the Appalachian region of India.

Legacy Baggage

While Bihar is located in the eastern part of India, giving it that geographical identity, it also has a social or linguistic identity as being a part of the Hindi heartland of the country. Unfortunately, Bihar has inherited two separate disadvantages because of these two identities. Being located in the eastern region, it was part of the old ‘Bengal Presidency’, where the land tenurial system of ‘zamindari’ or ‘intermediaries’ was prevalent. That left a permanent imprint of feudalism in the state, where the foundation of capitalism could not be laid.

Parallelly, being part of the ‘Hindi Heartland’, Bihar also did not experience any social movement, like in south and western India. These social movements in the south and west, generally a multi-caste phenomenon, had driven the society in those regions towards education and knowledge. This led to the creation of a wealthy-class, facilitating capitalistic and knowledge-driven production which has become an integral part of the social architecture there. Finally, these developments inculcated a sense of sub-nationalism in the south and west, which promoted social cohesion in the respective states. Bihar had completed missed this trajectory of economic and social development.

After independence, Bihar also suffered a third major disadvantage, thanks to the policy of ‘freight equalisation’. The advantage of mineral resources for unified Bihar was nullified with the freight equalisation policy, introduced by the central government in the early fifties. This policy entailed that iron ore, coal and cement can be carried away from Bihar to anywhere in the country, without any extra railway freight cost. This implied absence of any incentive for investment in Bihar.

Thus, ironically, it was the industrially-backward Bihar which had subsidised the industrialisation of the country, at the cost of its own interest.

For a landlocked state like Bihar, nothing could compensate for this huge loss.

Labourers work on the construction site for an overpass in Patna. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)
Labourers work on the construction site for an overpass in Patna. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

Also read: The ‘State’ Of Bihar And Why It Matters

Presently, Bihar is one of the poorest states in the country, with a poverty ratio of 33.7%. Over and above, the density of population in Bihar is the highest in the country (1,106 people per square kilometre). With the vivisection of the state in 2000, the present Bihar lost the Jharkhand part of old Bihar, which was not only richer in terms of tax collection, but also in terms of mineral endowment. When the present government had come to power in 2005, the total budget of Bihar was only Rs 22,656 crore, which increased more than ten times to Rs 2,11,761 crore in 2020-21. The budget for health and education also increased from Rs 5,438 crore to Rs 49,953 crore. But, in spite of such budgetary efforts, the Bihari economy could not develop much after bifurcation.

A study undertaken a couple of years ago showed that the share of the state was only 4% of the national market, while the population share was 10%. Thus, Bihar is heavily dependent on transfers from the central government for its revenue. Since the size of the market is small in Bihar, the corporate sector is nearly absent here. As such, politics, society, and the elite are all driven almost entirely by the institution of the state.

Entry into this state structure as a ‘lawmaker’ is, therefore, the principal objective of all resourceful people of Bihar.

The 2020 Bihar assembly elections needs to be understood in this backdrop.

The Playground And Its Players

The ensuing election in Bihar is basically plebiscitary, around Nitish Kumar, whether he should stay or get banished. Essentially, there are two formations: the National Democratic Alliance with the Janata Dal (United), Bharatiya Janata Party, Vikassheel Insaan Party, and Hindustani Awam Morcha; and the Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Indian National Congress and the communist parties. The Lok Janshakti Party, which was founded by the recently-deceased Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan, has decided to go solo in Bihar this time. While it remains an ally of the NDA at the Centre, it will put up candidates against the JD(U) in Bihar but not against the BJP.

This has encouraged other parties to form other alliances, to take on the NDA and the Grand Alliance.

First, there is a six-party alliance, labelled the Democratic Secular Front, which comprises of Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP, Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM, Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, Devenda Prasad Yadav’s Samajik Janata Dal (Democratic), Jantantrik Party (Socialist), and the Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party.

Then, there is another formation, called the Progressive Democratic Alliance, which is led by the Jan Adhikar Party (Lokrantrik) of Pappu Yadav, Chandrasekhar Azad Ravan’s Azad Samaj Party, the SDPI (MK Faizy), and BMP (VL Matang).

Finally, there is another front United Democratic Alliance, led by Yashwant Sinha, once union finance minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet. This alliance consists of no less than 20 parties, all tiny outfits.

These three combinations don’t stand much of a chance in this election, but they can be spoilers for the two major alliances.

Interestingly, a young girl Pushpam Priya Chaudhary, who graduated from the London School of Economics, has promoted a political outfit called ‘Plurals’, and is handing out tickets to young and educated people. There may come a day where she sets the agenda for women voters, a constituency assiduously built by Nitish Kumar.

Earlier, it appeared that JD(U) and BJP will have a clean electoral sweep in Bihar. Nitish Kumar’s ‘coalition’ of extremes, consisting of upper castes, a section of the upper-backwards (Kurmi, Keori), lower-backwards, and a section of the Dalit vote will be invincible. BJP’s appeal with upper caste and lower-backwards will further consolidate the ‘coalition of extreme’. During the past, Nitish Kumar had also assiduously built a following among women, by giving 50% reservation to them in the Panchayati Raj institutions, and 35% reservation in government jobs and police. In the first ten years of his tenure, he had not only resurrected the state but had substantially strengthened it by providing roads, bridges, institutions, etc. He was not only a ‘provider’, but also an enabler by bringing lower-backwards, Dalits, and women in the state system by making them lawmakers.

But now a victory for Nitish Kumar is not that certain.

First, BJP’s covert support to LJP may create electoral uncertainty for Bihar. Secondly, the outfit of Pushpam Priya Chaudhary, although a small one, may turn out to be bit of a spoiler. But one thing is certain—the 2020 assembly election in Bihar will be a ‘photo finish’ event.

Shaibal Gupta is the Founder Member Secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna; and the Director of the Centre for Economic Policy and Public Finance at ADRI.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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