Bihar bypoll: Tough for Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) to retain Jokihat seat

A repeat defeat for JD(U) in Jokihat may spell the end of Nitish Kumar’s appeal among minorities in Bihar. This will greatly reduce his bargaining power for JD(U)’s share of seats in the 2019 election

Bihar bypoll: Tough for Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) to retain Jokihat seat

Abbad Kamal

The Jokihat assembly seat in Bihar has been a bastion of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). Sarfaraz Alam won the Jokihat seat for JD(U) in the 2015 and 2010 assembly elections. Before that, Manzar Alam won it for JD(U) in both October 2005 and February 2005 assembly elections.

JD(U), however, has not been successful in this seat during Lok Sabha polls. Jokihat is an assembly segment of Araria Lok Sabha seat. In the last 2014 Lok Sabha poll and recent bypoll, Jokihat segment of Araria was won by Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. Araria falls in Bihar’s Seemanchal region, which also comprises of Katihar, Purnia and Kishanganj districts. Minorities account for more than 40% of the population in Seemanchal. Jokihat, with an almost 70% minority population, is the seat where the political mood of minority voters in Bihar is ascertained.

Jokihat is now seeing a bypoll on May 28, after sitting JD(U) MLA Sarfaraz Alam, quit the party, joined RJD and successfully contested the Araria Lok Sabha bypoll two months ago. The Araria seat had become vacant after Sarfaraz’s father and sitting RJD MP Mohammed Taslimuddin passed away. Sarfaraz’s resignation from JD(U) has necessitated the Jokihat bypoll.

Sarfaraz’s younger brother Shahnawaz has filed his nomination as the RJD candidate in Jokihat. Shahnawaz is up against the NDA candidate Murshid Alam of the JD(U), once a village mukhiya (elected panchayat chief). There are a total of nine candidates in the fray in this election.

The bypoll is taking place amid changed political equations. When Sarfaraz won here in 2015, JD(U) was in alliance with the RJD and Congress. However, in July 2017, Nitish Kumar quit the alliance and rejoined the BJP-led NDA, forming the state government in Bihar in partnership with the BJP.

In the Araria Lok Sabha bypoll, Sarfaraz Alam swept the Jokihat assembly segment, bagging around 1,20,765 votes, while the NDA candidate, BJP’s Pradeep Kumar Singh, got just 39,517 votes. The winning margin was a huge 80,000-plus votes. It was seen as a rejection of Nitish Kumar’s alliance with BJP.

Ever since, Nitish has been trying to remake his image among Muslims. He not so subtly supported and benefited from the ‘Deen Bachao, Desh Bachao’ rally organised in Patna by Emarat-e-Shariah Phulwarisharif and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. However, that attempt seems to have backfired on the CM after Muslims expressed anger at the rally organisers’ ‘deal’ with Nitish: one of the organisers was nominated by Nitish’s JD(U) to the Vidhan Sabha’s upper house. Nitish has also been announcing sops to the community.

An uphill climb for Nitish

However, analysts still say the only chance JD(U) would have of defeating Sarfaraz’s brother Shahnawaz in Jokihat is by somehow splitting the minority votes. In stepped Manzar Alam, former Jokihat JD(U) MLA, who filed his nomination as an Independent candidate. It was being discussed in Patna that Manzar Alam was deliberately fielded as a proxy candidate to ensure division of minority votes in order to benefit the NDA candidate Murshid Alam. However, Manzar Alam later withdrew his nomination.

The BJP does not have much at stake in Jokihat. The NDA candidate is not from BJP but from JD(U) and the onus is entirely on Nitish Kumar to win in his party’s former bastion.

It is Nitish who has to test his strength against Lalu’s RJD. It is he who will have to go all out to convince minorities to ignore his tie-up with BJP and the recent communal flare-ups in the state involving BJP leaders, and vote for his 'Vikas Purush' image. Given the most recent results in the seat (see main photo), it is an extremely uphill challenge for Nitish. And the stakes are hardly low.

A repeat defeat in Jokihat will spell the end of Nitish Kumar’s hold in the Seemanchal region, and among minorities across Bihar. This will greatly reduce his bargaining power for JD(U)’s share of seats within the NDA in the 2019 election. Hence, this is one by-election where the BJP may well be delighted to see the NDA candidate lose.

Jokihat votes on May 28; results will be declared on May 31, 2018.

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