Bihar Polls: 6 Factors At Play in Paswan-Nitish Standoff
A weaker Nitish Kumar would help the BJP, so the party wouldn’t mind if Chirag Paswan’s LJP weakens the JD(U).
Less than a year after taking over the reins of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) from his father Ram Vilas Paswan, 37-year-old Chirag Paswan has proven that he is no pushover. He is presently leading the party fight for space in Bihar politics and has two main targets – Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar and Hindustan Awam Morcha president Jitan Ram Manjhi.
This has led to a strain within the National Democratic Alliance, which is tipped to be the front-runner for the upcoming Assembly elections in Bihar. The final decision is likely to be taken by the LJP in less than a week.
There are six factors that are at play in the standoff between Paswan’s LJP and Nitish Kumar’s JD(U).
1. JD(U)'s Attempt to Squeeze Out LJP
Nitish Kumar appears to have made up his mind that he can return to power just with the help of the BJP and doesn't really need the LJP's support. His main priority is securing a favourable equation within the alliance with the BJP.
And the critical factor for JD(U) here would be to contest and win the maximum number of seats possible. Hence the reluctance to concede any space to the LJP.
The JD(U) wants the NDA's seat-sharing formula to be what it was in the 2010 Assembly elections – 141 seats to the JD(U) and 102 to the BJP. It would want its individual tally to be as close to the halfway mark of 122 as possible.
2. LJP's Response and a Past Precedent
In response to the JD(U), the LJP has threatened to put up 143 candidates, basically wherever the JD(U) contests. This would make it a bit like 2005, in which LJP had a tacit understanding with the Congress but not with Congress' ally, the RJD.
This is an arrangement the LJP is considering – a tacit alliance with the BJP and weakening the JD(U).
Chirag Paswan has been attacking Nitish Kumar for some time now, despite being an ally. Earlier this year, he criticised the Bihar CM’s handling of the migrant crisis. Last month, he said publicly that he hadn’t spoken to Kumar in a year.
3. BJP's Calculations
This brings us to a central element in the entire equation – the BJP. Reports suggest that BJP is strongly placed in Bihar and would want want to contest more seats than it did in 2010.
Given Uddhav Thackeray's volte face in Maharashtra, and Nitish Kumar’s own exit from NDA in 2013, it may also prefer a weaker Nitish entirely dependent on BJP. Therefore, the BJP may actually like LJP eroding JD(U)'s position.
However the question is whether BJP will push JD(U) to accommodate the LJP as a pre-poll ally or whether it would prefer LJP putting up candidates against its alliance partner. In the latter scenario, the BJP machinery may even have the option of tactically backing LJP in some seats, to keep JD(U) at bay.
4. Caste Factor
Dalits account for 16 percent of Bihar's population. Half of these are from Ram Vilas Paswan's Dusadh community. Paswan has enjoyed a relatively stable support from this section in Bihar ever since he formed LJP in 2000 and for some years he had support across all Dalits and some Muslims. This gave him some bargaining power vis-a-vis other parties.
However, Nitish Kumar introduced sub-quotas for Mahadalits – or backward sub-castes within Dalits. This gave JD(U) the support of non-Dusadh Dalits, undercutting Paswan's broader support among Dalits as a whole.
5. Jitan Ram Manjhi's Return
A key symbol of Nitish's pro-Mahadalit strategy was Jitan Ram Manjhi, who was appointed CM by Nitish before the two fell out. Manjhi, who belongs to the Mahadalit Musahar community, formed his own party, the HAM(S).
However, he hasn't been on the winning side since. He was part of the NDA in 2015 and UPA in 2019 and lost both times. Now he is back in the NDA and is seen as Nitish Kumar's way of clipping LJP's wings. Some of the LJP's strongest attacks have been against Manjhi.
6. Chirag Paswan's Ambitions
The youth in Bihar is politically restive but it has no options.
The BJP seems to be trying to tap into this vote by making actor Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide a political issue. The RJD is doing it by projecting Tejashwi Yadav, the Left through Kanhaiya Kumar and even strategist Prashant Kishor has started a campaign targeted at the youth.
The LJP is doing the same by projecting Chirag Paswan. LJP insiders firmly believe that Chirag is a far more astute politician than Tejaswhi or Kanhaiya – they cite that it was the younger Paswan who pushed his father to join the NDA instead of the UPA in the run-up to the 2014 elections, which put him on the winning side.
Chirag's supporters also say that he has succeeded in showcasing himself as a youth leader with an appeal that goes beyond his own community. These factors have pushed Chirag to take a more aggressive approach and try to carve out a greater space for himself.
But remaining separate from the NDA in the Assembly polls could mean depriving the LJP of the spoils of power if the NDA does win.
Therefore, the aim could also be to secure a favourable deal for the party at the Centre. Ram Vilas Paswan turns 75 next year. The BJP's norms lay down a retirement age of 75 for ministers but it isn't clear if that applies to allies. The LJP may try to play its cards in such a way that it gets to keep Paswan in the Union Cabinet even after his 75th birthday or secure a possible berth for Chirag.
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