Booths Nos 131 and 132, falling in the Jawadih village of Turki panchayat in Kurhani, an assembly constituency adjoining Muzaffarpur in north Bihar where a by-election was held on December 5, is dominated by Nooniyas, an Extremely Backward Caste (EBC), with a sprinkling of Teli (EBC), Kushwaha (OBC), and Ravidas (SC) communities. Since 2005, the EBCs have formed the bulwark of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s support-base.
But all this may be changing now. The BJP candidate from Kurhani, Kedar Prasad Gupta led in Booth No 132, and was almost level with the JD(U) nominee in the first booth. The BJP eventually emerged triumphant.
The result of the by-election to the Kurhani assembly seat in Bihar marks the beginning of the end of Mr Nitish Kumar’s 17-year-long stint as the state’s chief minister. In a state which saw the emergence of three principal political poles since the 2000 assembly polls, the outcome, taken together with the verdict of the Gopalganj and Mokama by-polls held a little over a month ago, signifies the narrowing down of the political field to two players, the BJP and Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, with Mr Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) facing the prospect of getting squeezed out of the frame.
The BJP wrested the Kurhani assembly constituency from the JD(U)’s Manoj Kumar Singh, whose candidature had been jointly sponsored by the “Mahagathbandhan,’’ a coalition of seven political outfits, by a margin of 3,649 votes. The verdict dealt a mortal blow to Nitish Kumar’s credibility and image, raising doubts about his ability to fetch votes for his party, and the seven-party ‘’secular’’ coalition led by him.
Indeed, a careful reading of the three by-elections suggests that Nitish Kumar’s sway over the non-Yadav OBCs and the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) has weakened drastically. And data collated from the results of the three by-polls confirms the trend that these social groupings may be gravitating towards the BJP.
In fact, there is evidence to suggest that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘’Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas, Sabka Prayas’’ slogan may be working at the ground-level in Bihar, with the BJP succeeding in weaning away at least 10-15% Yadav’s in Kurhani. The community, along with the Muslims, forms the two powerful props of the RJD.
Kurmis, the powerful OBC community to which Mr Nitish Kumar belongs, dominate Kishunpur Mohini panchayat and the neighbouring Chandrahatti. The BJP nominee obtained a slender lead of 142 votes in the two panchayats. The other social groups falling in the two panchayats are Yadavs and EBC Mallahs, with a smattering of upper caste Bhumihars thrown in.
The voting pattern among various communities in Kurhani is along the same lines visible earlier in Mokama and Gopalganj. The Ghoswari prakhand in Mokama comprises eight panchayats, and is almost entirely dominated by EBC Dhanuks, others EBCs, Yadavs and Kurmis, Paswans and Ravidas. The BJP led in four of the eight panchayats. More significantly, its candidate secured a lead of 46 votes in Kurmichak, which has an overwhelming Kurmi majority. In neighbouring Paijana, dominated by the Yadavs, the BJP candidate trailed by a small margin of 230 votes.
The story was more or less the same in Gopalganj. The Videshi Tola panchayat falling in the Thawe block has a preponderance of EBCs (Kharwars, Nooniyas, Dhobis, Badhais) and the Kushwahas, a numerically-significant OBC community. The BJP edged the RJD out in this panchayat by a margin of 234 votes.
EBCs and OBCs hold a sway over the Bishanpur West, as also the Yadavpur Dukhran panchayats. The BJP candidate emerged triumphant in both of them.
Interestingly, Nitish Kumar’s decision to jettison the BJP in favour of the Mahagathbandhan has proved to be a blessing in disguise for the former. An unfettered BJP, with only the two factions of the late Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party extending their support, has seen its vote-share shoot up from the 19.5% it obtained in the 2020 assembly polls in alliance with the JD(U), to 42.06% it cumulatively wangled in the three by-elections. Even in the 2015 assembly elections, which the BJP contested in partnership with the LJP, Mr Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) and former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), it could only secure 24.4% votes.
A combination of factors has catapulted the BJP into the position of a front-ranking political player in Bihar. Conversation with voters from among various communities in the three constituencies where by-polls were held recently point to the high popularity rating enjoyed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the pro-poor welfare programmes launched by his government in the past 8 years, especially since 2020, when India, alongwith the other countries of the world, was swamped with deadly Corona virus. Programmes such as the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Ann Yojana, which entails the distribution of free ration among the poor, Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, Ayushman Bharat, Ujjwala Yojana, Shauchalaya Nirman and the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana are a huge draw, more particularly among the women, and the poor in general.
While the Prime Minister’s popularity graph continues to soar high, Nitish Kumar suffers from a credibility crisis, inflicted primarily by his frequent political somersaults, searing corruption at the lower levels and the complete absence of new governance ideas. Unlike PM Modi, the Bihar chief minister has failed to address the concerns of the aspirational class. While the other so-called BIMARU states have changed gears, and moved fast on the growth tracjectory, Bihar, by comparison, still languishes behing on almost all growth parameters.
Nitish Kumar’s interactions with the public at large since the advent of Covid19 have thinned down considerably, and sectors such as education, industry, employment generation, law and order, environment, literature, art and culture, science and technology continue to suffer because of government apathy.
Much before the schedule to the three by-elections were announced by the Election Commission, the state BJP leadership drew a plan to micromanage the party’s affairs at the booth-level. The booth committees were re-energised, and an elaborate blueprint prepared to appoint ‘’panna pramukhs.’’ The organization has made considerable headway in this direction.
Commitees comprising a mix of locals and outsiders were formed at the assembly, mandal, shakti-kendra (panchayat) levels. Each MLA/MLC was entrusted with a cluster of three panchayats, and handed over a list of works to be completed before the culmination of the campaign period in each of the three constituencies.
A social outreach programme was simultaneously launched, with groups of leaders being formed to touch members of various communities in each panchayat. The endeavour paid rich political dividends in the three by-elections.
Sustained efforts by the BJP’s central and state leaderships have contributed to the vertical and horizontal expansion in Bihar. The party can draw satisfaction from the fact that it has succeeded in forming committees in about 60,000 out of the total 77,000 booths. Its morchas and prakoshths (cells) have also extended their clout.
A significant spin-off of the outcome of the three assembly by-polls is the curtailment of the elbow-room enjoyed so far by political mercenaries such as Mr Mukesh Sahni, the founder of the Vikassheel Insaan Party. He had fielded Nilabh Kumar, grandson of the late Sadhu Sharan Shahi, a four-term former MLA from Kurhani, with the sole intention of cutting into the support-base of the BJP. The VIP candidate could only bag 10,000 votes, and failed to mar the BJP’s prospects. Sahni’s bargaining abilities have now diminished considerably.
With two of the three assembly seats, where by-polls were held in the last two months, in its kitty, the challenge before the BJP is to touch the 50% vote-share mark, so as to be able to make its organization truly inclusive and all-encompassing.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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