A dramatic week has unfolded in Bihar politics. It saw the Bharatiya Janata Party adding three more legislators to become the single largest party in the state assembly for the first time. The party’s gain, however, has meant a jolt to the Mukesh Sahani-led Vikassheel Insaan Party – an NDA ally which couldn’t prevent three of its MLAs from leaving the party to join the BJP.
As the switchover took the BJP tally from 74 to 77 legislators, it inched past the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the key party in the opposition mahagathbandhan with 75 MLAs in the 243-member assembly. For a number of reasons, including the symbolic, the BJP is keen on making the psychological edge of the new numbers known. Even if the party had reached a higher tally of 91 in the 2010 polls, its NDA partner Janata Dal (United), after all, was the one with most seats. And in view of the wafer-thin majority of the ruling coalition and the fractured electoral verdict of the last assembly polls, the party is now seeing its newfound status as a late booster in its battles within the NDA as well as against the opposition.
At the receiving end, the VIP will take time to come to terms with the sudden downturn in what was its fledgling-yet-decisive heft in Patna’s power circles. The four seats held by it were crucial in a fragmented house where even a working majority clings on to minor shifts in the allegiance of each legislator.
In a rather sudden move in the run-up to the assembly polls in 2020, Mukesh Sahani, the party’s founder and supremo, had left the Tejashwi Yadav-led grand alliance, alleging betrayal in seat-sharing. The party shifted to the NDA fold where it was allocated 11 seats to contest and won four of them. While Sahani lost from Simri-Bakhtiyapur, party candidates Rajoo Kumar Singh, Mishri Lal Yadav, Swarna Singh and Musafir Paswan won from Sahebganj, Alinagar, Gaura Bauram and Bochaha seats, respectively. Sahani found a place as a minister of animal husbandry and fisheries in the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government and was later elected to the legislative council. His term is set to expire in July, but chances of him getting re-elected to the upper house of Bihar’s bicameral legislature seem uncertain with the emerging political equations.
While three of its MLAs are now in the BJP, the fourth, Musafir Paswan, died last year. To fill the vacancy, a bypoll would be held on April 12. As an immediate trigger, BJP’s decision to field its candidate for the bypoll further escalated tensions between the NDA allies – simmering since the VIP’s decision to field 57 candidates against BJP in the recent UP polls and Sahani’s verbal attacks on the PM and UP CM.
In a short political career of less than a decade in competitive politics, and less than half-a-decade for his party, Sahani isn’t new to either shifting loyalties or accusing betrayal. The Bollywood set-designer-turned politician had positioned himself as a "son of mallah" – claiming to represent the fishermen community and their interests – and sided with the NDA campaign in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Keen on giving wings to his political ambitions, however, he formed the VIP in 2018. Next year, his party became a part of mahagathbandhan in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, contested three seats, and lost all, including Sahani’s defeat from Khagaria. It took him another year to leave the opposition alliance while accusing its leadership of not honouring its word, a charge that he now levels against BJP’s state unit president Sanjay Jaiswal.
Sahani’s VIP had identified mallahs (fishermen), or Nishad community – it was an untapped social constituency in Bihar’s electoral politics. In the logic of numbers, around 21 sub-castes rooted in the community constituted about 4 percent of the state’s population, and at the same time they accounted for about 12-13 per cent of the state’s extremely backward class electorate which in turn constitutes around 30 percent of the people in the state. But the community’s voting choices tend to float, with claimants from various parties. However, the VIP has a more expansive, and occasionally overestimated, view of the community’s share in state population.
Moreover, even if it’s the first to derive its appeal overtly from the community’s identity politics, it isn’t that other parties didn’t have leaders from the community; JDU’s Madan Sahani and BJP’s Ajay Nishad also claim to represent the community. In the past, leaders such as Captain Jai Narayan Prashad Nishad and Bhagwan Lal Sahani were significant political voices from the community.
But it’s still unknown to what extent such parties can bag the votes of the community, or in alliance terms, have the heft to get votes transferred to their allies. It’s a challenge that many social groups or small caste-based parties that have surfaced in many states would face. Perhaps it also emanates from the fact – as Patna-based social scientist Shaibal Gupta had pointed out before 2020 polls – that parties such as VIP aren’t products of sustained social movements, so the process of lending credibility to them as promoter of the interests of their social group has been absent. That, in some sense, also makes them suspect in seat-sharing negotiations as they are often accused of angling for more seats only to trade them with potential bidders, with money being the key criterion.
“The capacity to transfer votes by Chirag Paswan, Jitan Ram Manjhi, Upendra Kushwaha and Mukesh Sahni is still untested. This is because their parties are not products of a movement; so, the credibility of these parties even as a promoter of their own social group is very limited. The seat-sharing delay was primarily because these smaller parties were overestimating their political strengths. Sometimes, they also demand more seats, not for contesting, but to sell them for monetary considerations. The mainstream parties, thus, treat them with suspicion; in case they win some seats, they can join the rival side,” Gupta in an interview to the Times of India.
While Sahani can still regroup and emerge as a force to reckon with in the future, it seems he overplayed his hand in the short innings he had so far, especially with a limited electoral base. This, however, leaves questions about whether there are instigators behind his moves within and outside NDA. And if so, how they are going to accommodate him in the current moment of tactical checkmate.
At the same time, the swelling of BJP’s numbers in the state assembly gives the party and Nitish Kumar’s JDU a cushion against possible moves by smaller alliance partners such as VIP and Jitan Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular. In a way, it also ensures that with the 122-mark reached with recent additions, the whims and fancies of independent legislators would count less. That, however, doesn’t mean that the majority has reached a comfortable stage; the anxieties of retaining it in the assembly would persist.
The more insidious issue is the tense relation between the two bigger parties – BJP and JDU – in the alliance.
Since the return of the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government in November 2020, with BJP being the stronger partner this time, the internal bickerings have been managed to the demands of a working relation. This has been more on the lines of a top-down approach where the state units of both the parties haven’t been on the same page on a number of issues but the BJP headquarters has seen that the boat is not rocked in Patna. Last month PM Narendra Modi Nitish Kumar as a “true socialist” free from dynastic politics – a compliment that was also seen as a tension-defusing signal for the state BJP to keep the alliance running. Even if that soothes nerves at the top, the two allies continue to have their share of troubles coordinating and sometimes even drift as far as looking like adversaries.
Even if the assembly speaker can’t be viewed as a party representative, many observers believe that the between Nitish Kumar and speaker Vijay Kumar Sinha in the house was an extension of the long-drawn turf wars between the alliance partners. The BJP’s latest demand for Sahani’s resignation from the council of ministers will once again test the fragile ties that mark the Nitish-led NDA alliance in Bihar. As Sahani puts the ball in the CM’s court, how Nitish acts now could just be another episode in the alliance management saga.
The week’s flux of political events in Bihar could be seen in many ways – the fate of a party trying to punch above its weight with a small electoral base, or a big national party poaching its way to settle turf wars within alliance. In either case, it turns the numbers in the assembly in a way that the two big allies have more breathing space, a thin shield against impulses of smaller allies. That, however, doesn’t settle the larger battle of one-upmanship between the JDU and BJP. How they navigate their tense ties in the coming months would shape future political alignments as well as power battlelines in the state.
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