How BJP’s defeat in Jharkhand may embolden Nitish Kumar to drive a hard bargain in Bihar

The chief minister is likely to demand more seats for his JDU to contest in next year’s Assembly election than its ally would have been inclined to offer otherwise.

ByAnand Vardhan
How BJP’s defeat in Jharkhand may embolden Nitish Kumar to drive a hard bargain in Bihar
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One of the clear concomitants of the formation of Jharkhand in 2000 was the decoupling of its politics from Bihar.

It’s not only different topographies but also, and more significantly, different demographic compositions, the nature of electorates, and sociopolitical formations that separate the politics in the two states. Along with these distinctions, the variables of issues, governance, mobilisation, and leadership make the two states very different electoral challenges for political parties. So there isn’t any reasonable reference point to see the Jharkhand election result as any kind of precursor to the Bihar Assembly election, due in November next year.

However, as momentum usually scripts behaviour in the fluid world of politics, it would be interesting to see how the key constituents of the National Democratic Alliance in Bihar now assess their political stock and equations. It’s in this immediate context that the election result can mould behaviour of the alliance partners on a few counts.

First, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) is expected to ask for more elbow room in any seat-sharing deal for the Bihar election. The party’s assessment hinges on the fact that the Jharkhand result puts the NDA pivot, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in a delicate phase of coalition handling in different states. It’s taking into account different strains seen recently – losing an old ally like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and even the Akali Dal’s call for better coordination within the NDA – following the party’s opposition to the National Register of Citizens quickly after its endorsement of the Citizenship Amendment Act. 

Given these visible signs of discontent within the NDA, the JDU  has been quick to seize the opportunity of the Jharkhand loss to drive home the demand for more space for the allies. Some JDU leaders are even blaming the BJP’s decision of going it alone, and not accommodating small allies like the All Jharkhand Students Union Party, Lok Janshakti Party and the JDU, for the Raghubar Das government’s defeat in Jharkhand. That’s what JDU spokesperson Sanjay Singh told reporters in Patna, contrasting the BJP’s approach to the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-led Grand Alliance remaining a cohesive unit with the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal getting their due space. 

“It’s amply clear that had the BJP presented a united fight against the JMM-led opposition in Jharkhand, it would not have lost there. We hope that the BJP will review the result and avoid repeating such mistakes in the upcoming Bihar elections,” Singh was quoted as saying in the Patna edition of the Times of India

The Jharkhand result seems to have offered a plank to the JDU to position its value as a prized ally that the BJP can’t afford to lose ahead of the Bihar election. More significantly, the party is hoping for a better bargain in the NDA’s seat-sharing arrangement for the 2020 Assembly polls by making the BJP feel insecure about its setback in the neighbouring state. In the Lok Sabha polls in Bihar, the party was a huge beneficiary of the BJP’s 17-17-6 seat-sharing formula with the BJP and the JDU contesting 17 seats each and the LJP six. However, such a favourable seat-sharing deal and the NDA sweeping 39 of the state’s 40 Lok Sabha seats didn’t stop differences surfacing immediately after the election as the JDU refused to join the NDA government, pursuing its demand for proportionate representation in the Union council of ministers.

Second, for the BJP, managing the NDA flock together in Bihar would be a consistent challenge. As it comes to grips with the loss of power in Jharkhand, the party would take solace from the fact that its core voter base hasn’t shrunk. Although it won only 25 of the 81 seats, the party got 33.37 per cent of the vote, which was more than the combined vote percentage of the JMM (18.72 per cent), which won 30 seats, and the Congress (13.88 per cent), which got 16 seats. So, except Chhattisgarh last year, none of the other states where the BJP lost power in last 12 months (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Jharkhand) have seen a rout or its vote share shrinking considerably. Even though the loss in important states would be hurting it, the retention of its vote base keeps it in the hunt for a resilient turnaround. 

In light of this, it would be interesting to see how the BJP assesses its support system and organisational strengths in Bihar, and how much concession it’s willing to give its allies in general and the JDU in particular. 

Third, before making concessions, the BJP’s assessment would weigh in the JDU’s non-Yadav OBC support base among certain caste groups like the Kurmis as well a segment of the Mahadalits, and the stature of the chief minister in the absence of a strong state BJP leadership. More significant, however, is how the BJP analyses what options the JDU has and why the Bihar chief minister would find the NDA attractive.

That said, the sheer scale of the 2019 parliamentary election result is something Nitish cannot be indifferent to in the immediate frame of electoral arithmetic. Despite only marginal support among Muslim voters, the NDA’s vote share was unassailably higher than that of the rival group. The RJD-led alliance was 28 per cent behind the NDA in vote share. It could get only 25 per cent of the vote as against the NDA’s 53 per cent. In a comparative frame – though that could be deceptive given the difference between Lok Sabha and Assembly polls – despite its loss in the 2015 Assembly election, the NDA’s vote share was only seven per cent behind the rival alliance’s.

Nitish doesn’t expect the gap of 28 per cent closing too dramatically or too soon in the run-up to the 2020 election. A weak RJD isn’t an attractive proposition for Nitish now – it’s perhaps as tricky as a strong Modi. There is a view that Nitish’s problems with the BJP aren’t about its state unit. It has more to do with Modi’s dominant position and the possibility of the Modi-Shah duo pushing the BJP to play Big Brother in the state. The latter concern, along with BJP leaders from the state like Giriraj Singh occasionally expressing disagreement with the state government, has been to an extent addressed by Shah saying his party would contest the 2020 Bihar election in alliance with the JDU, under the leadership of Nitish.

As the race to enter, wrest back or retain 1, Anne Marg hots up in Patna for the polls next autumn, the contours of political bargain, assessment and possible concessions are slowly becoming visible in alliance politics this winter. In the process, as the essential Patliputra survivor of over a decade, what Nitish seems to have on his mind now is a bit more elbow room.

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