Even as the Bihar assembly election will be contested on Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s performance, there is no doubt that it will also test the people’s opinion on the Centre’s response to the Covid-19 challenge, as well as the events that followed. This is particularly so as Bihar was one of the recipients of the return migration of labour working in other states. There is no doubt, also, that Nitish Kumar, in his latest stint, has not been able to live up to the promises he made, despite having almost no opposition worth its while to contend with. He has had the full support of the Union Government, but the development parameters do not exhibit the required growth. Part of the reason is Bihar’s penchant for being more focused on social rather than economic justice. Because of this, caste politics continues to hold sway and getting the mathematics right is an important part of winning elections.
The most significant policy move made by Nitish Kumar in the social and economic sense has been the imposition of prohibition in the state. Although the verdict on its social impact will become known at election time, the effect on the state’s finances is already known. It is reasonable to expect that the expenditure made by the state’s tipplers on alcohol has been diverted to better purposes, but the economy has not yet shown any indications of that. Instead, the funds have likely made it into the pockets of the liquor smugglers and bootleggers, thereby strengthening the hold of the various mafias. While it is unlikely that the political parties in the opposition would make lifting of prohibition part of their manifestos, the people’s opinion on this remains one of the imponderables.
While the Rashtriya Janata Dal remains the preferred choice of the dominant Yadav caste, it is in considerable disarray. Its ability to manipulate public sentiment and leverage all the variables of Bihar politics has been considerably reduced because of Lalu Yadav’s incarceration. His son and chosen successor Tejashwi has not been able to fill the vacuum to any considerable extent.
Owing to the relative weakness of the two major regional parties, the smaller entities are feeling encouraged – on both sides – to fill in the vacuum. Considering that the alliance between behemoth BJP and Nitish’s JD(U) provides little maneuvering space, the late Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP has, under his son, Chirag Paswan, decided to go it alone in the seats being contested by the JD(U). This could entirely sink the JD(U)’s boat, but the results need not necessarily be in LJP’s favour and might end up benefiting others. There is similar disillusionment in the opposition’s ranks, with smaller parties setting up their own alliances. It is likely that this will lead to close contests in many constituencies, making it an interesting and unusual election to follow.