In the past, scant significance has been attached to bypolls, but that is no longer the case in an era in which a BJP victory even in a municipal election makes big headlines on TV channels and is projected as a referendum in favour of the ruling government.
The upcoming March 11 bypolls for one Lok Sabha and two assembly seats in Bihar will be particularly keenly watched. For, this will be the first electoral test after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar ditched the Mahagathbandhan government of RJD-JDU-Congress which had been elected to power by the people of Bihar in November 2015, and formed an NDA government with the BJP, the losing party in the Bihar elections. The conviction of the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav in fodder scam cases is also bound to have an impact on voters.
Two latest developments related to Dalit politics as well as the coming Rajya Sabha election have queered the pitch for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ahead of the March 11 bypolls. The NDA in Bihar comprises, besides BJP and Janata Dal (United), the Hindustani Awam Morcha of former Bihar CM Jitan Ram Manjhi, the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party of Union Minister Upendra Kushwaha, and the Lok Janshakti Party of Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan.
Jitan Ram Manjhi on February 25 threatened that he would not campaign for the three NDA candidates and would even leave the ruling combination in Bihar if he does not get at least one seat in the Rajya Sabha election for six seats of Bihar to be held on March 23. Manjhi has been blowing hot and cold ever since the ‘homecoming’ of Nitish Kumar to the NDA fold. The repeated incidents of attack on Scheduled Castes across the country and beating up of Mahadalits––and their subsequent arrests––in Nandan village in Buxar district have angered him further. The police reportedly took brutal action against the Mahadalits after they allegedly threw stones at the chief minister’s convoy on January 12.
Interestingly, Manjhi’s warning came a few days after he was present at the filing of nomination papers by the BJP’s Araria Lok Sabha candidate, Pradeep Singh. The same day, Manjhi’s son met Lalu Prasad in Ranchi. Manjhi declared that he was not bothered about the result of the bypoll as nobody seems to be interested in him, though he had been one-sidedly backing NDA.
Manjhi is not the only one who is unhappy. Former state Speaker and senior JD(U) leader Uday Narayan Chaudhary is openly criticising the NDA. A couple of months back, he had invited former Union finance minister Yashwant Sinha—another baiter of the current NDA leadership—and on February 24 he was seen in a programme where Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar delivered a talk.
At almost the same time on February 25 that Manjhi was threatening to quit the NDA, RJD’s Leader of Opposition in the Bihar assembly Tejashwi Prasad Yadav was addressing Dalits on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Sant Ravidas. On this occasion, Tejashwi disclosed that he had recently repeated his father’s offer of a Rajya Sabha berth to Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati.
But Mayawati, according to Tejashwi, refused to accept the offer on the plea that she would not enter Parliament till the “fascist forces” are in power.
Mayawati even thanked Lalu Prasad Yadav for the offer. She had last year resigned from the Rajya Sabha on the plea that she was not allowed to raise the issue of Dalit atrocities in the Upper House.
Both Congress as well as RLSP sources confirmed that something is cooking and RLSP rank and file are likely to support RJD and Congress candidates
Assured of support of Yadavs and Muslims, the focus of the RJD-Congress alliance in the assembly bypoll campaign is on wooing Dalit votes, who form about 16% of the state’s population. On the other hand, the NDA would try to win back its old social equation. The bypolls thus provide both the ruling combination as well as the opposition an opportunity to test the political waters.
While RJD is confident of retaining Jehanabad assembly and Araria Lok Sabha seats––even though its Araria candidate Sarfaraz Alam is no match to his late father Taslimuddin––the fate of the Congress candidate from Bhabua Shambhu Patel hangs in balance, as the BJP has given the seat to the widow of the late MLA Anand Bhushan Pandey, a Brahmin. The Congress strategy in Bhabua is to break the hold of NDA as Shambhu Patel is a Kurmi, incidentally the caste of chief minister Nitish Kumar. Bhabua has a sizeable Kurmi and Koeri votes too. RLSP has reluctantly agreed to back the NDA after its leader and Union minister Upendra Kushwaha met BJP president Amit Shah on February 22. However, both the Congress as well as RLSP sources confirmed that something is cooking and RLSP rank and file are likely to support RJD and Congress candidates.
Besides, Bhabua assembly segment falls under Sasaram SC Reserved Lok Sabha constituency, which is adjacent to the Karakat parliamentary seat, represented by Kushwaha.
The BJP, though, would leave no stone unturned to retain Bhabua, as the battle has become a prestige issue after its unsatisfactory performance in Gujarat assembly and Rajasthan bypolls.