Bihar bypolls: Is the Nitish-Lalu alliance a logical solution to overthrow brand Modi?

In the recently concluded by-election in Bihar, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) won only four out of the 10 seats that went to the polls. The alliance of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Janata Dal United (JD(U)) and Indian National Congress won six seats.

 Bihar bypolls: Is the Nitish-Lalu alliance a logical solution to overthrow brand Modi?

Analysts are baffled why the Modi magic didn't affect the Bihar bypolls' outcome. Reuters

It was widely expected that Modi wave would sweep Bihar in these by-polls given that in the Lok Sabha elections the party along with Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) had won 28 out of the 40 LS seats in the state. The LJP won six out of the 28 seats.

In the aftermath of this debacle a lot of analysis has been put out on why the BJP had such a terrible fall of face. Some analysts pointed out that the Modi magic has worn away and did not have the same effect in the by-polls as it did during the Assembly elections. A few others think that Modi did not manage these polls on his own and it was the Bihar unit of the party that managed the polls, and hence the BJP-LJP combine lost.

As veteran political journalist Ajoy Bose writes in The Economic Times:

“Narendra Modi's spectacular triumph in the Lok Sabha polls three months ago may not signal a tectonic shift in Indian politics as many political pundits predicted. Nor does the BJP seem poised to become the predominant party in the country despite forming the first single-party majority government in New Delhi after three decades.”

Still others have said that people tend to vote differently in Lok Sabha and state elections. The trouble is none of these analysts have bothered to look at the voting pattern. If they had they would have known that there is just one reason behind the BJP not doing well in Bihar and that is the “first past the vote system”.

In the Indian political system, the candidate who wins the most number of votes wins the election, even though a major part of the electorate maybe against him. It is not the perfect way to elect leaders, but that is what we have got. Election Commission data shows that in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP-LJP combine had got 35.8% of the votes polled. The RJD and the Congress had an alliance during the Lok Sabha polls. The JD(U) had fought the polls on its own. The RJD got 20.1%, the Congress got 8.4% and the JD(U) got 15.8% of the votes polled. In total, this amounted to 44.3% of the total votes polled.

So RJD-Congress-JD(U) got more votes than BJP-LJP. Nevertheless, since RJD, Congress and JD(U) were not in alliance, these votes did not translate into Lok Sabha seats.

So what happened in the recent by-elections? Data from the Election Commission shows that the RJD-Congress-JD(U) got 45.6% of the total votes polled. The BJP-LJP got 37.9% of the votes polled. Given that, this time JD(U) was not fighting the elections separately, the votes polled translated into assembly seats as well, unlike the Lok Sabha polls.

Further, as lot of analysis seem to suggest, the vote percentages have not changed majorly since the Lok Sabha elections. In fact, the vote share of both the RJD-Congress-JD(U)alliance and the BJP-LJP has improved marginally at the cost of other parties.

The BJP-LJP combine lost simply because Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar decided to come together. This tells us clearly that in the first past the vote system, tactical political alliances can clearly neutralize the impact of brand Modi. Both Nitish and Lalu realised this the second time around and came together to form an alliance, despite having been sworn political enemies for nearly two decades.

In fact, early in his political career Nitish had decided to be pragmatic about his politics.

Sankarshan Thakur descirbes a very interesting incident in the Single Man: The Life & Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar. This incident happened sometime in the late 1970s, after the Emergency had been lifted.

Karpuri Thakur became the chief minister of Bihar in December 1977. Nitish quickly became disillusioned with this government. As Sankarshan Thakur writes “He thought it had betrayed the promise of the JP movement, strayed from Lohia...He had turned a critic and went about addressing seminars and meetings on how and why this was not the dispensation he had fought for.” One day, while at the India Coffee House, a scrap at another table, got Nitish going. As Thakur writes “He banged the table with his fist and announced: "Satta prapt karoonga, by hook or by crook, lekin satta leke acha kaam karoonga." (I shall get power, by hook or by crook, but once I have got power I will do good work.”)

Nitish became the chief minister of Bihar nearly three decades later in 2005. And for the first half of his political career, he propped up Lalu Prasad even though he knew that Lalu wasn't fit to govern. Thakur puts this question to Nitish in the Single Man: “Why did you promote Lalu Prasad so actively in your early years?” he asked.

And surprisingly, Nitish gave an honest answer. As Thakur writes “'But where was there ever even the question of promoting Lalu Yadav?' he mumbled...'We always knew what quality of man he was, utterly unfit to govern, totally lacking vision or focus.”

So why then did Nitish decide to support him? “'There wasn't any other choice at that time,' Nitish countered...'We came from a certain kind of politics. Backward communities had to be given prime space and Lalu belonged to the most powerful section of Backwards, politically and numerically.” And thus Nitish ended up supporting Lalu for nearly the first two decades of his political career.

Nitish finally decided to go on his own at the Kurmi Chetna Rally (Nitish belongs to the Kurmi caste) in February 1994. At this rally he roared “Bheekh nahin hissedari chahiye..Jo sarkar hamare hiton ko nazarandaz karti hai who sarkar satta mein reh nahi sakti (We seek our rightful share, not charity, a government that ignores our interests cannot be allowed to remain in power).”

Nevertheless, Nitish had to wait for 11 more years to finally come to power in Bihar. And this finally happened after he entered into a pragmatic alliance with the “communal” BJP (as most of the other parties tend to look at the BJP). After more than eight years, Nitish decided to break this alliance once it was more or less clear that Narendra Modi would be BJP's prime ministerial candidate.

Given this background, it is not surprising that Nitish decided to ally with Lalu even though he thought that Lalu was “utterly unfit to govern”. It was a pragmatic decision to get power by hook or by crook, as Nitish put it many years back.

This pragmatism worked in the recent by-election. Now Nitish is trying to build an even more formidable alliance by getting the left parties together as well. And this alliance, if it comes together, will be even more difficult to beat, the brand Modi notwithstanding.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

Updated Date: Aug 26, 2014 16:05:39 IST