Bihar Was Never a 2-Front State & There’s No ‘Vote Katwa’ Either
In Bihar the top two fronts hardly ever got over two-thirds of the total votes. Winning front never crossed 45%.
The existence of several smaller players has complicated the political field for Bihar. Besides the two main fronts – the NDA and the Mahagathbandhan – the ongoing Assembly elections will have several smaller fronts and parties in the fray.
These smaller parties and fronts are often labelled as ‘Vote Katwa’ or spoilers. But this is a simplistic view and is based on the assumption that Bihar is a two-front race. This piece will show that this has never been the case throughout Bihar’s electoral history.
But before that, let’s take a look at the various political actors battling it out in the Bihar Assembly elections.
Which Parties And Alliances Are in The Fray?
The two main contenders – National Democratic Alliance and Mahagathbandhan – are themselves multi-party coalitions.
National Democratic Alliance
CM Face: Nitish Kumar - JD(U)
Constituent Parties: BJP, Janata Dal (United), Jitan Ram Manjhi's Hindustan Awam Morcha and Mukesh Sahani's Vikassheel Insan Party.
CM Face: Tejashwi Yadav - RJD
Constituent Parties: Rashtriya Janata Dal, Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist), Communist Party of India, Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Then there are three smaller players that are making their presence felt.
Lok Janshakti Party
CM Face: Chirag Paswan
The LJP says it is part of the NDA nationally and wants a government along with the BJP but not the JD(U) in Bihar It is has mostly put up candidates in seats that the JD(U) is contesting.
Grand Democratic Secular Front
CM Face: Upendra Kushwaha (RLSP)
Constituent Parties: Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, Bahujan Samaj Party, Devendra Yadav’s Samajwadi Janata Dal (Democratic), Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Janatantrik Party (Socialist).
Progressive Democratic Alliance
CM Face: Pappu Yadav
Constituent Parties: Pappu Yadav’s Jan Adhikar Party, Chandrashekhar Azad’s Azad Samaj Party and the Social Democratic Party of India.
In addition to these parties, several parties that would be putting up candidates include Congress' allies in other states like Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Sharad Yadav's Loktantrik Janata Dal.
Bihar Has Never Been a Two-Horse Race
Ever since its first Assembly election in 1951, Bihar has never been a simple two-front or two-party race. To understand this, a few statistics would be helpful.
- In 15 Assembly elections held since Independence, the winning party or front in Bihar has never secured more than 45 percent of the total votes.
- This didn't change even after four huge events that altered the states politics: the 1975-77 Emergency, implementation of Mandal Commission report and the Ram Mandir agitation (both in the late 1980s and early 1990s) and the bifurcation of the state in 2000.
- Anything around or above 40 percent of the total votes has led to very strong victories for any front or party.
- The top two parties or pre-poll alliances have never secured more than two thirds of the popular vote except on one occasion.
- The only exception to this was the last election. 2015 was the most bipolar election Bihar has ever seen. The two main fronts – the RJD-JD(U)-Congress Mahagathbandhan and the BJP led NDA – put together got 75.8 percent of Bihar's entire vote share and won 236 out of 243 seats in the state.
- This means that in every election except this one, 'others' secured over one third of the total votes cast in the state.
What Do Smaller Parties Represent?
So if smaller parties have consistently polled over one third of the votes in Bihar, it would be both unfair and inaccurate to reduce them to the status of Vote Katwas.
If not joining the two major fronts is the only criteria, then Congress and LJP have been ‘Vote Katwa’ in two elections each since Bihar’s bifurcation – 2010 for Congress, 2005 October for LJP and 2005 February for both.
The truth is that most smaller parties represent distinct sets of political trends on the ground and they come up mainly due to the failure of larger parties. Let’s take these four examples.
- In this election, Chirag Paswan’s LJP, besides being the main political outfit for the Passi or Dusadh community, is representing one key trend on the ground – its stand for an NDA government minus Nitish Kumar. Several polls suggest that a large chunk of voters is in favour of PM Narendra Modi at the Centre but doesn’t want Nitish Kumar back as CM. The BJP is still fighting the elections under Nitish Kumar’s leadership, so this trend of favouring Modi but not Kumar is best being represented by the LJP.
- Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP: Koeris or Kushwahas represent close to 8 percent of Bihar’s population. They are the biggest OBC community after Yadavs (14 percent) and more numerous than Nitish Kumar’s Kurmi community (4 percent). The community was initially part of Lalu Yadav’s broader OBC base and later Nitish’s non-Yadav OBC one, but there’s a sense in the community that they didn’t get their due.
- AIMIM: Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi’s party is seeking to fill a vacuum among Bihar’s Muslims who feel that they are underrepresented in the state’s politics despite being 15 percent of the state’s population. This is particularly the case in the Seemanchal region, where Muslims are over 40 percent. The region has faced neglect from successive governments. Even in terms of political representation there is a major vacuum there after the demise of Mohammad Taslimuddin in 2017 who was one of the tallest leaders the region has produced and was part of both RJD and JD(U).
- Left Parties, which may be part of the RJD-led alliance this time, also represent a distinct political force in Bihar. The CPI-ML for instance was the main political voice of Dalits, especially Musahars, in the face of oppression by privileged caste organisations like Ranvir Sena. The CPI on the other hand has its base mainly among poorer Upper Castes.
What Impact Will Smaller Parties Have?
Smaller parties are likely to complicate things for bigger parties in the upcoming elections and often within the same alliance, there would be parties that may be eating into the base of bigger parties in different alliances.
- The LJP’s case has been the most talked about. By fielding former BJP leaders in a number of seats where JD(U) is contesting, LJP could end up getting a chunk of pro-BJP votes in those seats, harming Nitish Kumar’s party.
- The Shiv Sena has said it would be contesting 50 seats in the state. In the 2015 elections, Shiv Sena contested 73 seats and got 1.8 percent votes. As a majority of its candidates were from privileged castes, naturally it damaged the BJP as that’s the party’s main vote bank. In two constituencies – Dinara and Tarari – the votes polled by the Shiv Sena were more than the difference between the winner and the BJP runner-up. The losing BJP candidates in Dinara was RSS favourite Rajendra Singh, who is ironically now contesting as an LJP candidate.
- Given that AIMIM’s main plank is greater representation for Muslims, its presence is likely to harm the RJD-Congress alliance more but also the JD(U) to some extent. In Seemanchal it may lead to a proper three-way split in Muslim votes between the Mahagathbandhan, JD(U) and AIMIM. The SDPI on the other hand will compete with both the Mahagathbandhan and the AIMIM for the Muslim community’s support.
- Pappu Yadav’s JAP and Devendra Yadav’s SJDD are both breakaways from the RJD and broadly aim at replicating the parent party’s Yadav-Muslim base, therefore their presence is likely to harm mainly the RJD.
- Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP will harm the NDA more than the Mahagathbandhan given that Koeri votes have tended to go with the JD(U) and the same goes for the SBSP which is competing with the BJP for Rajbhar community votes in Eastern Uttar Pradesh.
- The presence of the BSP and Azad Samaj Party in two smaller alliances has become a proxy battle for the Uttar Pradesh elections between Mayawati and Chandrashekhar Azad, both of whom hail from the Jatav community. At the same time, both the parties will be competing for Dalit votes with the NDA, Mahagathbandhan and LJP.
Main Challenge for Smaller Fronts
The main challenge for smaller fronts would be vote transfer. Will the constituents of newly created and smaller fronts be able to transfer votes as effectively as bigger and more well established alliances?
For instance, will a Koeri voter of RLSP support an AIMIM candidate? Or will Pappu Yadav’s supporter be open to voting for Chandrashekhar Azad’s newly created party instead of backing the RJD?
In the end, each of the constituents of the various alliances may be playing for what is sure to be an uncertain post-poll scenario. Most political players are betting on a split between the BJP and JD(U) a few months after the elections or maybe a year or two down the line. In that scenario, smaller parties may gain some bargaining power vis-a-vis bigger ones.
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