A journey across Bihar gives the sense that the Bharatiya Janata Party still remains a strong contender for power, but one effect of this is a counter-polarisation of Muslims behind the “grand alliance” of the Janata Dal (U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress.
Located to the north-east of Bihar and abutting Nepal and West Bengal, the backward Seemanchal region, comprising Araria, Purnia, Kishanganj and Katihar districts, reveals this pattern most tellingly. This region of 24 Assembly constituencies has a heavy Muslim presence, and the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) of Asaduddin Owaisi has entered the fray here to get a slice of the Muslim votes.
On paper, Mr. Owaisi’s entry is bad news for the grand alliance. However, as one drives across Araria and Kishanganj, both having a strong Muslim population, one senses a clear Muslim tilt towards their alliance.
“The Nitish-Lalu alliance is the clear frontrunner in this region,” says Mohammad Naseem Anwar, as he idles under a tree beside the highway near Kishanganj. He is surrounded by a band of friends. They break into a candid chat after they have ascertained that this reporter is a journalist and not the representative of any political party.
“The MIM has an outside chance in Forbesgunj, only because the RJD candidate there is not seen as strong enough. The BJP and the Third Front of Mulayam Singh Yadav may also fancy their chances on this seat. In other seats, the grand alliance should be a clear leader,” Mr. Anwar says.
The gathering nods in agreement, and Shahnawaz Khan, one among them, says that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had worked for the region’s development.
“Roads, power, etc., came to villages here just because of Nitish Kumar. Earlier we had motorable roads only for three months here in low-lying areas. Many villages first saw power only in Nitish Kumar’s time,” Mr. Khan says.
They point to the fields across the highway to show that a region now has roads connecting each village. They add that electricity has come to this region only under Mr. Kumar, “though there have been power cuts in recent months”.
Mr. Anwar, however, says that sections of low-caste Hindus will vote for the BJP. “They somehow like the BJP. I don’t know why,” he says with an air of resignation.
About 10 kilometres away in village Andhasur, Harilal Mandal, member of an extremely backward caste, Rajbansi, agrees that the grand alliance is powerful, but adds that many of his caste are likely to go with the BJP. There is a hint of a grievance of local political dominance of Muslims when he says: “It is difficult for Hindus to get a post here.”
The MIM’s bid to create a shriller Muslim politics — with attempts to woo backward Hindus to create a social coalition of the “downtrodden” — is not working here. Muslims do not seem to want to split their vote — this may help the BJP — and see a strong alternative to the BJP in the RJD-JD(U) combine.
Muslims may stand by ‘grand alliance’
There are distinct signs of a Muslim polarisation in favour of the “grand alliance” of the Janata Dal (U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress as Bihar goes to the polls in the coming weeks. Muslims constitute about 17 per cent of the State’s population.
With a growing social coalition of Hindus backing the party, the BJP has sprung to its feet in the State — a pattern that first emerged when Bihar voted emphatically for a Narendra Modi-led BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.