What appeared to be a predictable election in Bihar has suddenly taken a turn. National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partners — the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — have arrived at a tentative seat-sharing arrangement, but the third pillar of this alliance, the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), has decided to contest separately. Intriguingly, the LJP will remain a part of the central government; it has declared that its battle is with Mr Kumar and not with the BJP; it will contest on seats where JD(U) candidates are in the fray and avoid challenging the BJP; and it has reiterated its loyalty to Narendra Modi.
The key to unravelling this puzzle is understanding the state of the Opposition. With Lalu Prasad out of action, Tejaswi Prasad unable to match up, and the Congress remaining marginal, there is a sense that the Opposition is not really in a position to displace the NDA. This has shifted the locus of the competition — from one between the ruling alliance and the Opposition to one within parties of the ruling alliance to enhance the strike rate in elections and maximise their post-poll bargaining position. Within the NDA, there is simmering resentment against Nitish Kumar in the BJP, which sees itself as the natural claimant for leadership in Bihar and believes Mr Modi’s popularity is enough to see it win power. The fact that Mr Kumar is facing serious anti-incumbency has only emboldened this view — but the BJP does not want to take the risk of a repeat of 2015, when Mr Kumar tied up with Lalu Yadav, and wants to keep JD(U) locked in till the election at least. The competition is also happening with an eye towards a post-Nitish Kumar landscape. From the BJP to Chirag Paswan to Tejaswi Yadav, the aim is to capture future political space.
It is important not to overestimate the LJP. It is a relatively small party; its social base is limited to the Paswan caste, found in limited pockets; and its recent electoral success is primarily due to its association with Mr Modi. But the fact that the BJP is both a part of the incumbent formation, asking for votes for the continued leadership of Nitish Kumar, and has a friendly party in the Opposition, asking for votes to displace Nitish Kumar, means that Bihar’s election — and post-election scenario — may throw up surprises.
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