A dramatic week has unfolded in Bihar politics. It saw the Bharatiya Janata Party add three more legislators to become the largest state assembly party for the first time. The party’s win, however, meant a jolt for the Vikassheel Insaan party led by Mukesh Sahani – an NDA ally who could not stop three of its MPs from leaving the party to join the BJP.
While the swing boosted the BJP’s tally from 74 to 77 lawmakers, it overtook Rashtriya Janata Dal, the key opposition mahagathbandhan party with 75 MPs in the 243-member assembly. For a number of reasons, including symbolic ones, the BJP is keen to publicize the psychological benefit of the new numbers. Even though the party had achieved a higher tally of 91 in the 2010 polls, its NDA partner Janata Dal-United, after all, was the one with the most seats. And given the slim majority of the ruling coalition and the fractured electoral verdict of the last assembly polls, the party is now seeing its new status belatedly recalled in its battles within the NDA as well as against the opposition. .
At the reception, it will take time for the VIP to come to terms with the sudden slowdown in what was his nascent but decisive weight in Patna’s circles of power. The four seats he held were crucial in a fragmented chamber where even a working-class majority clings to minor shifts in each lawmaker’s allegiance.
In a rather sudden move ahead of assembly elections in 2020, Mukesh Sahani, the party’s founder and supremo, left the grand alliance led by Tejashwi Yadav, alleging betrayal in the seat sharing. The party moved to the fold of the NDA where it was allocated 11 seats to contest and won four. While Sahani lost from Simri-Bakhtiyapur, party candidates Rajoo Kumar Singh, Mishri Lal Yadav, Swarna Singh and Musafir Paswan won the seats of Sahebganj, Alinagar, Gaura Bauram and Bochaha respectively. Sahani found a place as Minister of Animal Husbandry and Fisheries in the NDA government led by Nitish Kumar and was later elected to the Legislative Council. His term is due to expire in July, but the chances of him being re-elected to the upper house of Bihar’s bicameral legislature look uncertain with emerging political equations.
While three of his MPs are now in the BJP, the fourth, Musafir Paswan, died last year. To fill the vacancy, a partial vote would take place on April 12. As an immediate trigger, the BJP’s decision to present its candidate to the by-vote has further escalated tensions between NDA allies – simmering ever since the VIP’s decision to field 57 candidates against the BJP in the recent UP polls and Sahani’s verbal attacks against the PM and UP CM.
In a short political career of less than a decade in competitive politics and less than half a decade for his party, Sahani is not new to changing loyalties or accusing of treason. The set designer-turned-Bollywood politician had positioned himself as a “son of mallah” – claiming to represent the fishing community and their interests – and sided with the NDA campaign in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. give wings to his political ambitions, however, he formed the VIP in 2018. The following year, his party became part of the mahagathbandhan in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, contested three seats and lost everything, including including Sahani’s loss to Khagaria. It took him another year to quit the opposition alliance while accusing its leaders of breaking their word, an accusation he is now making against BJP state unit chairman Sanjay Jaiswal .
Sahani’s VIP had identified the mallahs (fishermen), or the Nishad community – this was an untapped social constituency in Bihar’s electoral politics. Going by the numbers, about 21 community-rooted sub-castes made up about 4% of the state’s population and at the same time they made up about 12-13% of the extremely backward class electorate of the state. state, which in turn constitutes about 30 percent of the state’s population. But the community’s voting choices tend to float, with applicants from various parties. However, the VIP has a broader and sometimes overstated view of the community share in the state population.
Moreover, even though it is the first to openly draw its appeal from community identity politics, it is not that the other parties did not have community leaders; Madan Sahani of JD-U and Ajay Nishad of BJP also claim to represent the community. In the past, leaders such as Captain Jai Narayan Prashad Nishad and Bhagwan Lal Sahani were important political voices in the community.
But it remains unclear to what extent these parties can win community votes or, in alliance terms, have the clout to transfer votes to their allies. This is a challenge that many social groups or small caste parties that have surfaced in many states would face. It may also stem from the fact – as Patna social scientist Shaibal Gupta pointed out before the 2020 polls – that parties such as VIP are not the product of sustained social movements, so the process to give them credibility as a promoter of the interests of their social group has been absent. This, in a sense, also makes them suspect in seat-sharing negotiations, as they are often accused of seeking more seats only to swap them with potential bidders, with money being the key criterion.
“The vote transferability of Chirag Paswan, Jitan Ram Manjhi, Upendra Kushwaha and Mukesh Sahni is still untested. This is because their parties are not the products of a movement; thus, the credibility of these parties, even as promoters of their own social group, is very limited. The delay in sharing seats was mainly due to the fact that these small parties overestimated their political strengths. Sometimes they also ask for more seats, not to participate, but to sell them for monetary consideration. The dominant parties therefore treat them with suspicion; in case they win seats, they can join the rival camp,” Gupta said in an interview with India time.
While Sahani can still regroup and emerge as a force to be reckoned with going forward, it looks like he’s overplayed his hand in the short innings he’s had so far, especially with a base. election limited. This, however, leaves questions as to whether there are instigators behind his movements inside and outside the NDA. And if so, how will they accommodate it in the current moment of tactical failure.
Meanwhile, the swelling number of BJPs in the state assembly gives the party and Nitish Kumar’s JD-U a cushion against possible moves by smaller alliance partners such as VIP and the Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular by Jitan Manjhi. In a way, it also ensures that with the 122 mark reached with the recent additions, the whims and fancies of independent legislators would matter less. This, however, does not mean that the majority have reached a comfortable stage; the worries of retaining him in the assembly would persist.
The most insidious problem is the strained relationship between the two largest parties – BJP and JD-U – in the alliance.
Since the return of the NDA-led Nitish Kumar government in November 2020, with the BJP this time the strongest partner, the infighting has been handled as per the demands of an employment relationship. It is more akin to a top-down approach where state units from both sides have not been on the same page on a number of issues, but BJP headquarters saw the boat was not not shaken in Patna. Prime Minister Narendra Modi Nitish Kumar last month as a ‘true socialist’ free from dynastic politics – a compliment which was also seen as a signal to defuse tensions for the BJP state to keep the alliance going . While this calms the nerves at the top, the two allies continue to have their fair share of coordination issues and sometimes even drift so far as to look like adversaries.
Even though the assembly speaker cannot be considered a party representative, many observers believe that the dispute between Nitish Kumar and Speaker Vijay Kumar Sinha in the house was an extension of the long-running turf wars between the alliance partners. The BJP’s latest demand for Sahani’s resignation from the cabinet will again test the fragile ties that mark the Nitish-led NDA alliance in Bihar. With Sahani putting the ball in CM’s court, the way Nitish is acting now could be just another installment in the alliance management saga.
The flow of political events for the week in Bihar can be seen in many ways – the plight of a party trying to punch its weight with a small electoral base, or a large national party forcing its way to settle turf wars within the covenant. Either way, it spins the numbers in the coven so that the two larger allies have more breathing room, a thin shield against the impulses of the smaller allies. This, however, does not settle the biggest one-upmanship battle between the JD-U and the BJP. How they navigate their strained ties in the coming months will shape future political alignments as well as the battle lines for power in the state.