Bihar 2010 and Beyond:

Challenges for the Revolutionary Left

Dipankar Bhattacharya

The 2010 Bihar election results have understandably triggered considerable discussions in the media and in political circles. While psephologists are busy trying to explain the sweeping nature of the poll outcome, media commentators and academics are going to town with their versions of the Bihar story that lies behind and ahead of this electoral landslide. The BJP and the NDA are particularly buoyed by this unprecedented victory and would surely try every weapon in their stock to consolidate the gains even as Nitish Kumar tries to make as much hay as possible as long as the sun continues to shine. For activists involved in the protracted struggle for democracy and social transformation in the challenging battlefield of Bihar, there are of course many issues to be addressed and a lot to learn.
The Rise of the BJP
For most observers, an NDA victory in Bihar was clearly on the cards. What has been really stunning is its eventual scale – 206 in a house of 243. The real surprising factor has been the tally notched up by the BJP – 91 out of 102. In fact, if one includes the pro- and ex-BJP ‘independents’, the effective strength of the BJP goes up to 95. It is on this score that almost all opinion polls and political predictions were found wide off the mark. For example, even the most generous pre-poll survey that predicted 170 seats for the NDA gave only 50 seats to the BJP as against 120 seats for the JD(U). It eventually turned out to be 91 for the BJP against 115 for the JD(U) – the gap between the BJP and the JD(U) thus narrowing down to 24 from 33 in the November 2005 elections.
This remarkable rise of the BJP is by far the biggest surprise thrown up by the Bihar polls. True, the BJP reaped this bumper electoral harvest by showing utmost loyalty to “Brand Nitish”, even when Nitish Kumar went to the extent of cancelling the dinner he had hosted for visiting BJP leaders and returning the Rs. 5 crore that Bihar had received from Gujarat as contribution to the Chief Minister’s flood relief fund. But it will be wrong to see the BJP only as a passive beneficiary of Nitish Kumar’s currently soaring electoral brand value and miss the aggressive and predominantly upper caste feudal and communal mobilization under the BJP’s banner. The BJP thus benefited both from its own organizational network as well as the widespread fund of social goodwill currently held by Nitish Kumar.
The BJP-JD(U) relationship in Bihar has all along been symbiotic in nature, but the BJP is increasingly emerging a bigger beneficiary. Unlike states like Odisha and Punjab where the BJP has shared power as junior partners, the party has clearly developed a much larger independent base and profile in Bihar. Beyond its traditional urban strongholds, the BJP has evidently deepened its penetration in areas of feudal landholding as well as districts with considerable minority concentration, whether in the Seemanchal region or in Mithila and surrounding areas. If Bihar had given the BJP its first Muslim member in the Lok Sabha, in this election the BJP has also got its first Muslim MLA in the state.
The Nitish Kumar Phenomenon
Even though the BJP secured an extraordinary tally of 91 seats, the 2010 Assembly elections in Bihar will certainly be remembered because of the Nitish Kumar phenomenon. Propped up by the twin pillars of the bureaucracy and the media, this phenomenon marks the convergence of three distinct factors – a decisive rejection of the anarchic reign of Lalu Prasad, a meticulously planned and methodically executed scheme of calibrated social engineering and a surge of popular aspirations for development fuelled by a powerful backlash against decades of economic backwardness, deprivation and humiliation.  The institutionalized anarchy of the Lalu era had become an unbearable burden not only for the all-India ruling classes but for the entire Bihari society and the Nitish era has come to be recognized popularly as a period of course correction.
Most media stories on Bihar revolve around the so-called triumph of development over caste. Theories abound as to how Nitish Kumar has kindled a sense of Bihari pride in the fragmented caste-ridden society of Bihar, enabling people to rise above their narrow caste identities and secure a new sub-national identity.  But a closer look reveals the continuing centrality of caste to Nitish Kumar’s grammar of political management. The reservation of panchayat posts for candidates of extreme backward castes coupled with 50% reservation for women and cosmetic measures for the uplift of Mahadalits and backward (pasmanda) Muslims created a new social equation for the new regime. There were initial reports of upper caste lobbies being resentful of this new reservation formula, but the end results show that it is they who have reaped the maximum benefit of this new social engineering. If the EBC representation in the Assembly has moved from 7 to 17, upper caste representation has gone up significantly from 59 to 76.
If Nitish Kumar has trounced Lalu Prasad, it is not so much in the game of development, but right in the battlefield of caste arithmetic.  After five years of Nitish rule, Lalu Prasad is today left with a heavily dented and often divided M-Y equation while Nitish Kumar has made deep inroads among almost all social groups. He resorted to some very crude and loaded overtures to create this rainbow coalition. With the decision to disband the Amir Das Commission just before it could table its report concerning the patrons of the Ranvir Sena, Nitish Kumar had sent out an early message of reassurance to the feudal lobby and the BJP. The appointment of the Land Reform Commission was possibly another calculated move to coerce and cajole the feudal lobby into submission. With the threat of land reforms and tenancy rights hanging like the proverbial sword of Damocles, the feudal lobby, now represented primarily by the BJP, would have to fall in line. 
While ensuring the compliance of the feudal lobby, Nitish Kumar also reached out to the EBCs who had long felt excluded in Lalu Prasad’s scheme of ‘social justice’. The calibrated Mahadalit move – first enlisting 18 out of 22 dalit sub-castes as Mahadalits, and then gradually broadening the net to include all but Paswans, instilled a sense of emerging identity among dalit subgroups and enabled the JD(U) to create a wide-ranging social constituency. Likewise, by harping on the pasmanda Muslim tune, Nitish Kumar managed to strike a chord within the Muslim community in spite of his long association with the BJP. Last but not the least, the move to extend 50% reservation to women in panchayats and municipalities, and measures like provision of bicycles and school uniforms for girl students, gave the new dispensation a pro-women image and earned it additional support from women among all classes.
The RJD-LJP Combine and the Congress Camp
What lent additional edge to the Nitish Kumar phenomenon was the defensive and discredited state of the main opposition. The RJD tied up with the LJP, but this could by no means compensate for the steady erosion of the RJD’s own base. Instead of trying to take on the government on issues affecting the rural poor like BPL, PDS and the crucial question of land reforms, the RJD-LJP combine tried to woo the feudal lobby by invoking the ‘fear of land reforms’. To appease the opponents of land reform, Lalu Prasad made the former JD(U) MP Prabhunath Singh, one of the most vocal ring leaders of the anti-land reform lobby, a key campaigner of the RJD, much to the chagrin of several senior leaders of the party.
Lalu Prasad also tried to project himself as a ‘development icon’, promising to give Bihar a facelift much the same way as he claims to have turned the Indian Railways around. The RJD ad campaign asked the Bihar electorate whether they would like to see Bihar in the hands of a successful railway minister or an unsuccessful railway minister! The absurdity of the RJD’s election campaign only pushed the electorate further towards the NDA camp. The more Lalu Prasad ran a desperate campaign vowing to come back to power, the easier it became for Nitish Kumar to invoke the fear of the Lalu era!
The Congress had entered the scene with an ambitious claim of forming a Congress-led government and ‘connecting Bihar to the national rate of growth’.  The party had promised to field fresh and credible faces, but found itself saddled with endless controversies over the way party tickets were allegedly sold to ticket-seekers with high connections. Against this backdrop, the party’s claims of the Bihar government wasting central funds had little takers. If anything, the high-pitch Congress campaign only made it easier for Nitish Kumar to invoke the plank of central discrimination against Bihar and project himself as a champion of the interests of Bihar against a callous Centre.
People’s Grievances and the CPI(ML) Campaign
It would be patently wrong to conclude from the election results that the people of Bihar now have far fewer grievances or that these grievances are not being channelized into struggles. On the contrary, the five years of the Nitish Kumar government have been a period of ceaseless struggles in the face of heightened repression. With a BPL list that excludes more poor people than it includes and a public distribution system that is ranked by the Supreme Court as the most corrupt and inefficient in the country, survival remains a constant battle for the rural poor in Bihar. To make matters worse, thanks to the complete failure of the government on the flood control and irrigation fronts, north Bihar has been struck almost every year by disastrous floods while large parts of south Bihar experienced recurrent drought and famine-like conditions over the last two years.
Apart from fighting for survival and basic amenities, the landless rural poor and tenants and share-croppers in Bihar also waged a determined struggle for the publication and implementation of the report of the Land Reforms Commission headed by D Bandyopadhyay. It was the sustained campaign by the CPI(ML) and the fighting rural poor of Bihar which forced the government to release the report, if only in the form of a CD containing the English version of the report. Among the major milestones of the campaign were a highly successful Bihar Bandh on November 23, 2009 and a massive Jan Adhikar Rally in Patna on March 30, 2010, which was widely recognized as the biggest opposition rally of the Nitish era till date. There were also powerful acts of panchayat-level intervention for securing subsidies and credit for tenants and share-croppers.
Corruption has also been a major popular concern during the first term of the Nitish Kumar government. It is common knowledge that if there has been a certain drop in some particular branches of crime (kidnapping for ransom, for instance), there has simultaneously been a phenomenal increase in corruption from top to bottom. Bihar has seen powerful struggles against the corrupt practices of ration dealers and panchayat representatives and block-level officials. Following the revelation of the treasury fraud through the CAG and the subsequent order of CBI enquiry by the High Court, a campaign was unleashed on the issue of corruption in high places. But with the High Court going back on its own order of CBI enquiry, and scams of much bigger magnitude surfacing all around, the issue of the treasury fraud and fake bills did not assume the kind of prominence that one would otherwise expect.
Corruption apart, the Nitish Kumar regime has also been known for growing bureaucratic and feudal domination and for its arrogant attitude towards people’s struggles and democratic concerns. Contract teachers and para-health workers, men and women alike, have had to experience brutal lathicharges while demonstrating for their demands in Patna. People going to the Chief Minister’s “Janta Darbar” (people’s chamber) have returned empty-handed with tales of their harrowing experience with bureaucratic harassment, insensitivity and hollow promises. Liquor shops mushrooming all over the state have attracted the wrath of the people and there have been powerful actions by women against many such state-sponsored liquor dens.
Both within the Assembly and outside, the CPI(ML) and mass organizations associated with the party have been consistent in championing the people’s causes, articulating their grievances and demands and leading their struggles. In the wake of the treasury fraud, CPI(ML) MLAs were suspended from the Assembly along with many other opposition MLAs for insisting on CBI probe and resignation of the Chief Minister.  The election campaign of the party, backed by its record of struggles on various fronts, revolved around the people’s quest for development, dignity and democracy and contrasted the two contending models of development – the feudal-bureaucratic model that rejects land reforms, perpetuates poverty and unemployment and promotes systematic loot of public funds versus the radical democratic model that proceeds through land reforms and agricultural and industrial development, creates jobs for the masses of the people and guarantees them effective rights and dignity.
Verdict 2010 and the Challenges Ahead
The election outcome clearly does not reflect the strength of the struggles led by the CPI(ML). On the contrary, this has been one of the weakest electoral showings by the CPI(ML) and the entire Left. How do we explain this paradox of powerful struggles, impressive political mobilization, extensive mass membership and yet a drastic drop in votes? The party was faced with a similar situation in the last Lok Sabha elections when the current social and electoral trends had manifested themselves quite powerfully. Our votes had dropped to an all-time low – nearly 470,000 even as we put up 20 candidates. The party did take the outcome seriously, initiating a set of corrective measures to streamline the organization, intensify the struggles and consolidate the political influence of the party.
The result shows that while we have managed to increase our total votes by 50,000, the improvement has certainly not been adequate enough. During the Lok Sabha we had a slender lead in one Assembly segment in Bhojpur but did not have second position in any of our key segments. This time around, our candidates have finished second in five segments. But everywhere we lost out to NDA candidates and in most seats of Bhojpur and Patna (rural) we were pushed back to the third position. In class terms, we can say that riding on the Nitish Kumar wave, feudal forces have managed to tilt the socio-political balance in their favour overpowering the anti-feudal mobilization and fighting unity of the people.
Some people see the results in terms of emerging signs of a bourgeois restructuring of politics in Bihar where feudal remnants have receded into the background and anti-feudal contradiction has accordingly been softened. Well, the weakening of feudal remnants has been a major gain of the CPI(ML) movement in Bihar; and if private armies and massacres have started becoming a thing of the past, the credit goes primarily to the brave and determined resistance waged by the people. But the election results have revealed the contours and content of ‘bourgeois restructuring’ which in Bihar essentially means a bourgeois modification of old forms of feudal domination.
On the face of it, rural Bihar has experienced considerable decentralization through the panchayats and ‘inclusion’ of many hitherto marginalized social groups through reservation, but the system has clearly been working to the advantage of feudal forces who have managed to regroup and stage a powerful comeback under the banner of the NDA in general and the BJP in particular. During the last ten years of panchayati raj in Bihar, the party has gathered considerable experience of participation in the panchayats, but by and large we still do not have a satisfactory model of exercising popular supervision and intervention and using the panchayats as a platform of struggle. This is clearly one area where the party will have to bring about urgent improvement in its performance.
Though the CPI(ML) in Bihar has been known for its bold and militant anti-feudal role, the CPI(ML)’s programme is by no means limited to or focused on any abstract or dogmatic anti-feudalism. The party pursues a revolutionary and dynamic democratic programme which pays serious attention to the ongoing restructuring of feudal remnants as well as the more direct forms and routes of imperialist/capitalist loot and plunder. If anything, the Bihar election outcome has revealed the complexity and enormity of pursuing this democratic programme in the face of the deceptive slogans and ‘reform offensive’ of neo-liberalism.
To take just two examples, it was the CPI(ML) which fought for the effective enfranchisement of dalits at a time when it was unthinkable for the landless and oppressed poor to exercise their right to vote. Today, instead of trying to stop dalits from voting, feudal forces are appropriating their votes through the politics of Mahadalits. It was the CPI(ML) which delivered major blows to feudal patriarchy and led the first wave of awakening and assertion of the poor and oppressed rural women. Today, ironically enough, it is an NDA government which has appropriated the slogan of ‘women’s empowerment’ in Bihar! We are clearly faced with the challenge of developing a powerful movement that will tear apart theveil of illusions and sharpen the class consciousness and strengthen the fighting resolve and capacity of the people.
The bourgeois slogans, however lucrative, are of course soaked in their own irreconcilable contradictions, and drawing on the people’s own experiences, we must do everything possible to expose and challenge all the attractive official slogans and promises. Nitish Kumar has made tall claims in these elections – he has promised to provide subsidized food to the 15 million poor families of Bihar even if the Centre pegs the BPL number in Bihar at only 6.5 million. He has promised to adopt a zero tolerance policy towards corruption and confiscate the property of corrupt officials and convert these into schools or public buildings. He has promised to provide sufficient electricity to every part of Bihar. The list is long but the people of Bihar have now left him with no excuses for non-performance.

There is now little opposition left inside the Assembly. The issues of Bihar will have to be addressed and resolved increasingly through battles on the streets. Undeterred by the electoral reverses, the CPI(ML) will have to take the lead in this process and push back the NDA offensive through determined mass struggles.

Bihar Assembly Elections 2010:

The Overall Outcome and the CPI(ML)'s Performance

The NDA has secured an unprecedented majority winning 206 seats in a house of 243. Within the NDA, the BJP's success rate (91 out of 101, i.e. 90%) is higher than that of the JD(U) (115 out of 142, i.e., 80.98%). The leading opposition bloc got only 25 seats (RJD 22, LJP 3), while the Congress got 4 seats and the CPI 1. The JMM too got 1 seat while independents (most of them pro-BJP) got six seats.
In terms of vote share, the NDA has got a little more than 39% (JDU 22.62%, BJP 16.51%), while the leading opposition RJD-LJP combine got 25.63% (RJD 18.88%, LJP 6.75%), followed by 8.38% of the Congress and 4.19% of the Left (CPI(ML) 1.79%, CPI 1.69% and CPI(M) 0.71%). Parties like the BSP (3.22%), NCP (1.82%), JD(S)(0.79%) and SP (0.55%), though failing to win any seat, accounted for a sizable combined vote share of 6.38%.
Compared to November 2005, the NDA's vote-share improved only by 3% while the RJD's share dropped by nearly 4.61% . This was however sufficient to trigger a landslide win for the ruling NDA and a drastic decline in opposition seats.
The Muslim-majority district of Kishanganj is the only district where the NDA drew a blank. The four seats in the district were claimed by the Congress (2), RJD (1) and LJP (1). Among the remaining 15 victorious Muslim candidates, as many as 8 however belong to the JD(U)-BJP combine. Of the 19 Muslim MLAs, the two leading combines thus account for 8 each (JD(U)-7, BJP-1, RJD-6, LJP-2) while three of the four Congress MLAs are also Muslim.
The RJD-LJP combine could open its account in only 15 out of Bihar's 38 districts, winning 2 or more seats in only 8 districts (Madhubani-3, Patna-3, Darbhanga-2, Samastipur-2, Saran-2, Bhojpur-2, Kaimur-2, Kishanganj-2).
The CPI(ML) had fielded a total of 104 candidates. The Party candidates polled a total of 520,352 votes, finishing second in five places, third in 11 and fourth in 12 places. Of the five seats where we finished second, three were in Siwan (Darauli, Ziradei and Raghunathpur), one in Katihar (Balrampur) and only one in south Bihar (Arwal). In all our other prominent constituencies in south Bihar we finished either third or fourth.
In terms of votes, three candidates polled between 30,000 and 50,000 votes, while another three polled between 20,000 and 30,000. There were 8 candidates in the 10,000-20,000 bracket and another 8 in the 5-10,000 bracket. Among the remaining 82 candidates, 6 candidates polled between 4,000 and 5,000; 10 between 3,000 and 4,000, and 12 between 2,000 and 3,000.
The most recent comparison of our performance can be made with the 2009 LS election votes. 2009 was the first election after delimitation and that was also when the current socio-political trends had begun to manifest themselves quite forcefully.  Compared to 2009 LS votes, our total votes increased by 50,000, but compared to October-November 2005 our votes are down by 50,000. Compared to February 2005 when we had won our maximum number of seats (seven), our votes have declined by nearly 90,000. In other words, if between February 2005 and November 2005, the rise of the Nitish Kumar phenomenon had cost us 40,000 votes and two seats, the five years of growth and consolidation of the same phenomenon has now cost us another 50,000 votes and all our five seats in the outgoing Assembly.
Among the 22 seats where we have polled 5,000-plus votes, 17 seats have witnessed an increase in votes (91,291) since the 2009 LS election while 5 seats suffered a decline (21,563). Overall, we thus polled 69,728 votes more in these constituencies since May 2009. If we look at 50 key constituencies in terms of our overall practice, votes increased in 33 seats (by a total of 97,871 votes) while declining in the remaining 17 (by 35,943 votes).

Delimitation makes comparison with 2005 Assembly elections somewhat difficult in many seats, but if we compare our main areas we get a mixed picture of marked decline in some seats, more or less steady performance in a few and recovery in the rest over the last five years. For example, while votes dropped quite drastically from 45,516 to 32,474 in the main two seats of Rohtas, and from 45,249 to 31,280 in the two main seats of Patna, votes increased marginally from 67,109 to 72,871 in the three main seats of Siwan and from 29,265 to 38,432 in the main three seats of Arwal-Jahanabad belt. In the 5 main seats of Bhojpur, votes fell from 98,049 to 88,388. Among our other main seats, Balrampur witnessed a marginal increase from 39,872 to 45,432, while Obra (Aurangabad) and Bhorey (Gopalganj) saw votes decline from 24,023 to 18,463 and 15,382 to 8,800 respectively.