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Bihar elections: In the extremely fluid Bihar pollscape, is migrant discontent only the tip of the iceberg?

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By Mohammad Sajjad

Till a few weeks ago, the opposition in Bihar may have seemed to have disappeared, its role being taken up by Madhepura parliamentarian Pappu Yadav and his ‘spoiler’ outfit, Jan Adhikar Party (JAP). Yadav’s ubiquitous presence ‘in the streets’ distributing Covid-19 relief raised serious questions about leader of opposition and former deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav, the torchbearer of his father Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

But many, especially in the national media, missed out on a pivotal aspect of the three-phase Bihar elections that kick off on October 28: migrant discontent. Almost 32 lakh migrant workers returned home to Bihar during the Covid-instigated lockdown from workplaces across the country. These returning workers, mostly from ‘backward’ castes, found little succour in the incumbent Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)-BJP government.

The looming unemployment is realised by Kumar as well. His seven-point ‘nishchay’ (resolve) towards making a Bihar ‘saksham’ (capable) of creating employment skills is something voters expected to have been already accomplished by the 15-year administration. This failure, for many, testifies Kumar having lost the plot.

The returning migrants have not only exposed NDA’s failure in delivering social welfare benefits, but it has also revealed Bihar’s poor healthcare infrastructure. The developmental gains made by Kumar in his early years as CM seem to be overshadowed by the little progress made in his later stints. Returning migrant workers, handling of Covid-19 and agrarian distress only seem to underline this palpable fatigue against the Kumar-led government.

JD(U)’s partner in government, BJP, has also not helped. Despite accepting Kumar as NDA’s chief ministerial candidate, BJP has made it obvious that it wants to come to Patna ‘on its own’. It has essentially split NDA into two: one block being BJP+Lok Shakti Party (LJP); the other BJP+JD(U). Under the leadership of Chirag Paswan, son of the late Ram Vilas Paswan who passed away on October 8, LJP spoke out against the chief minister, praised the Prime Minister while refusing to use the latter’s photos in the party’s campaign banners.

LJP struck alliances with minor outfits such as Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) and Jitan Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM). Sahani is supposed to have some appeal among aspirational youth of his fishermen community, which is emerging as a dominant ‘ati pichhra’ (very backward) caste in pockets of north Bihar, and among lower dalits such as musahars and rishidevs.

Even in campaigns, the RJD-Congress-Left ‘mahagathbandhan’ (grand alliance) has been holding a larger number of small meetings that have been crowd-pullers. BJP, however, is repeating its usual strategy of holding big rallies addressed by leaders flown in from Delhi, making it smack of ‘over-centralisation’.

Communal polarisation has also been a strategy for BJP this election, with Union minister of state for home affairs Nityanand Rai insinuating that if an RJD-led coalition comes to power, Bihar will become a ‘terrorist haven’. Vague attempts at damage control followed. BJP should be aware that the politics of polarisation was counterproductive for the party in the 2015 assembly elections, even leading to the late BJP MP from Begusarai Bhola Singh to state that ‘Bihar is not Uttar Pradesh’. Kumar has remained silent on this front.

The chief minister has also been harping more on the follies of the ‘Lalu-Rabri’ era than achievements of his 15-year tenure. The unintended messaging here, for many, seems to be that Kumar has run out of anything to showcase that could yield him votes. His government’s 2016 liquor ban in the state, for instance, has backfired. Not only has ‘dry Bihar’ deprived toddy-tappers income, but it has also been linked to the rise in organised rural and urban crimes operating via the liquor and land mafia, in complicity with local and middle-level police. Add to this a perception that JD(U) depends on the liquor mafia for its election fund, and one can gauge the erosion of faith in the Kumar-led government.

Speculations are already rife about bhumihar ‘motormouth’ and central minister Giriraj Singh as a potential BJP Bihar chief minister. This further alienates backward castes. True, the Yadavs, too, are seen as hegemons. But RJD’s alliance with the supposedly resurgent Left — with the latter’s strong support base among the underclass of various lower castes in various pockets — and with Congress garnering support among Muslims and upper castes, is seen as a check against RJD’s ‘Yadavisation’ efforts. Also, it has been the Left alone that has been vocal against corruption in the Kumar administration, highlighting mega-scams such as the Rs 800 crore Srijan corruption case, which involves the NGO, Mahila Sahyog Samiti, in whose accounts government funds were allegedly transferred between 2004 and 2014.

Is Bihar really set for yet another perceptible change? We shall know on November 10.

The writer is professor of history, Aligarh Muslim University.

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