Here’s why fate of BJP govts in Bihar, MP hangs in the balance

Amitabh Tiwari
·Columnist

 

The Election Commission has announced that the state elections to Bihar will be held before the expiry of the tenure of the current Vidhan Sabha, that is, by November 29. 

The EC also said that by-polls to 64 Vidhan Sabha and 1 Lok Sabha seats will also be held around the same time. 

The by-polls have been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. A couple of weeks ago it had announced the guidelines for these elections.

Along with 243 Assembly seats of Bihar, elections will be held in 64 Vidhan Sabha seats across 15 states which have fallen vacant due to death, resignation or disqualification of MLAs. 

Elections will also be held for one Lok Sabha seat in Bihar (Valmiki Nagar). JDU Member of Parliament Baidyanath Mahto died in February earlier this year necessiating a by-poll.

These will be the country's first elections amidst the pandemic and will be keenly watched. For all the states, except Madhya Pradesh, the by-polls are merely an academic exercise, without having any impact on the governments in power.

Madhya Pradesh by-polls is a do-or-die election for Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan as well as Jyotiraditya Scindia, who joined the Bharatiya Janata Party along with his loyalists leading to the downfall of the Kamal Nath government and the installation of a BJP dispensation. Majority of the BJP’s candidates are likely to be from the Scindia camp.

The continuity of Shivraj Singh’s government in Madhya Pradesh depends upon the by-poll outcome. The BJP currently has 107 MLAs in a house of 230. It needs to win 9 seats out of these 27 to attain a simple majority. A relatively lower strike rate of 33% would suffice for the BJP. 

The Congress on the other hand has 89 MLAs and needs to win all the 27 seats to make a comeback, implying a strike rate of 100%, a nearly improbable proposition. 

While the BJP is hoping for a Karnataka-like repeat where it won 12 out of the 15 seats which went for by-polls in similar circumstances, the Congress is hoping people would teach the gaddar (traitor) MLAs a lesson and it would make a comeback. 

To counter the Congress’s claims, the BJP has launched ‘Gaddar Nahin Khuddar’ campaign highlighting how Maharaj (Scindia) was insulted in the Congress like many other stalwarts who were forced to leave the party. 

History suggests that by-polls are conducted on hyper-local issues and mostly the governments in power have an edge. 

The Bihar Assembly election has been eagerly awaited. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar will be seeking re-election for the fourth time. The BJP, with which he has had a love-hate relationship, has already announced that he would be the chief ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance, ending months of speculation. 

The opposition Mahagathbandhan (MGB), led by Lalu Prasad’s son, Tejasvi Yadav of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), is still shaping up. It is yet to recover from the Lok Sabha poll drubbing, when it could win only 1 seat out of 40. 

Fissures are visible both in the NDA and the MGB. Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) which is part of NDA is taking pot-shots at Nitish. Paswan’s son Chirag has said that LJP has an alliance with BJP and not JDU. Meanwhile, former chief minister Jiten Manjhi’s party Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) has ditched the MGB and rejoined  NDA. 

Political pundits and a section of the media have written off Lalu Yadav’s RJD and are predicting an NDA sweep. Just to be sure, pundits were predicting a major win for the BJP in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, too. 

Nitish Kumar has been ruling Bihar non-stop for almost 15 years now. Fifteen years is a long enough time to develop huge anti-incumbency. A sort of lethargy starts creeping into the voters’ minds. 

I feel the results could surprise pundits and NDA could witness heavy losses if the RJD-led MGB gets its strategy right and runs a tight campaign. The results could be like Maharashtra or Haryana, for that matter. 

Fifteen years of a chief ministerial rule in any state points to an inflexion point according to my research (excluding North Eastern states). 

Many top politicians have lost elections while seeking re-election for the 4th term: Tarun Gogoi (Assam), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (MP), Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh), Sheila Dixit (Delhi), Lalu Prasad Yadav (including wife Rabri Devi, Bihar), Bidhan Chandra Roy (West Bengal) to name a few. 

Naveen Patnaik (Odisha) and Jyoti Basu (West Bengal) are the only prominent chief ministers of big states who have defied this trend. 

A major case of anti-incumbency is brewing against Nitish Kumar and he is short of ideas this time around. He won the 2005 elections on the Bihari asmita plank and on the promise of eradicating jungle raj. He won 2010 elections on the sushasan plank and the 2015 elections by emerging as a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: he was of course helped by the ‘Bihari DNA fiasco’ and his opportunistic alliance with the RJD.

In 2020, he is talking like the BJP and Modi and is asking what the RJD did in the 15 years it was in power. Even hard-core supporters feel he hasn’t achieved much in this term. His image of a paltu ram (turncoat) has gained traction over the years. 

He is seen as power hungry and an opportunist. In this five-year rule, one-third of his tenure he was in alliance with the RJD and the balance with the BJP. He used RJD and Lalu to settle scores with the BJP and he is now attacking the same RJD. 

Nitish has been criticized for mishandling COVID-19 and the resultant migrant crisis in Bihar. Although, to his credit, testing has been ramped up significantly and recovery rates are above 80% now. With elections increasingly becoming US presidential-style, Nitish is banking on the TINA (there is no alternative) factor. 

The overhang of the pandemic and how it plays out in the next 2-3 months could affect voter turnout. Lower turnouts are usually beneficial to the incumbent as the trend suggests. 

The fate of two BJP governments hangs in balance with the results likely soon after Diwali.