This 25th February turned out to be a super Saturday in Bihar. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stalwart and home minister, Amit Shah, addressed a big gathering in Purbi Champaran. At the same time, the Nitish-led grand alliance too, for the first time, jointly held a mega rally in Purnia in the Seemanchal region. Needless to say, both rallies saw attacks launched against the opponent.
However, it is worth noting that this was Amit Shah’s fourth visit to Bihar since chief minister Nitish Kumar called off the alliance with the BJP in August last year. The JD(U) went back to its old alliance partners, mainly Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Congress and left parties, to form a government afresh.
But the transition was never going to be as smooth for the BJP. After having put on a promising show in the 2020 assembly elections, in partnership with JD(U), the BJP began to put its plan into place. Though it conceded the chief minister chair, it made sure to appoint two deputy CMs from the saffron camp and nurture a new league of leadership for the party in the state. BJP has longed for a popular face who could shoulder the mantles of the party, whose growth for years has been undermined by playing second fiddle to Nitish Kumar.
In that context, appointments of Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi, from Other Backward Classes and Extremely Backward Classes, respectively, as deputy CMs was a strategy by the party to establish a new rung of leaders who could pull women and backward votes from a fading Nitish Kumar.
However, JD(U) boss Nitish Kumar sensed the BJP'S game plan. Not long before he felt betrayed by the ally BJP when the latter tacitly backed Chirag Paswan who unleashed a full-fledged attack on him throughout the assembly election in 2020. This time Nitish chose to pull the rug underneath the BJP.
On paper, the mathematics of social engineering would lead one to believe that JD(U) in alliance with the RJD is an unbeatable force. After all, the electoral history of the state suggests that whenever two of the three biggies have come together, the third has been comprehensively decimated. If the RJD suffered a streak of drubbing in the 2000s, the BJP, in 2015, was wiped out when the other two forces combined.
But signs of changing times have set alarm bells ringing in the newly stitched alliance. Of the three bypolls- Gopalganj, Mokama, and Kurhani- since the new alliance formation, the BJP single-handedly pulled off a victory in two even if the alliance survived a close shave in the third. Even though, generally, bypolls tend to go in the incumbent's favour.
The poll results lend credence to the argument that the two constituents of the grand alliance may not be able to forge an alliance of their core voter bases owing to the long-standing socio-political friction. Kurmis and Yadavs, the two land-owning castes among the backwards have mostly remained in opposite political camps in the last three decades. In addition, the lopsided balance of the alliance -RJD dwarfing JDU- further dampens the mood for caste groups like Kurmis and Koeris, who staunchly backed Nitish Kumar in his heydays.
So has the grand alliance got grounded even before taking off?
That might be too early to suggest. After the loss of the JD(U) candidate in the Kurhani bypoll and reports emerging of fissures in alliance voters, analyst and columnist Asim Ali cautioned -
"...the caste chemistry in bypoll elections can turnaround in state or national elections, where the larger ideological narrative tends to subsume, if not subordinate, localised competition."
The ongoing caste census in Bihar is perceived to be the ammunition for one such narrative that is most likely to dominate Bihar's politics in the coming days. With the apex court ruling in favour of the 10% Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) quota, and allowing the 50% cap (set by itself) to get breached, the Bihar government is enthusiastic about the prospects after the counting concludes in April this year.
All this while, the BJP has been attempting to cobble new alliances with smaller parties in the run-up to the general elections in 2024. Unlike 2019, it no longer has JD(U), which contested on an equal number of seats (17 each), in its camp. Instead, it is a force multiplier in the opposition. The immediate challenge for the Modi-led party is to recreate the remarkable performance of 2019 when the NDA won 39 out of the total 40 seats. Since it requires more than a decent performance to be the dominant force in the 2025 assembly elections. Having established itself as the hegemon in others, Bihar remains the last battlefield in the Hindi heartland for the Bharatiya Janata Party to conquer.