Chirag Paswan has the BJP-JD-U worried, and rightly so

Insiders say the BJP is now concerned the LJP putting up a good fight against the JD-U would mean benefitting the Mahagathbandhan in those seats. Moreover, Chirag and Tejaswi are known to be friends, and the former is battling for his political survival.

Archis Mohan reports.

Success has many fathers. As for the face of failure, look no further in this election season than to Lok Janshakti Party chief Chirag Paswan.

The junior Paswan’s decision to field candidates against Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United in the forthcoming assembly polls in Bihar was part of a script to write the political epitaph of not only Kumar, but that of the social justice movement in Bihar.

Suddenly, and to the surprise of strategists in the Bharatiya Janata Party, the ploy appears to have started to boomerang. They find the ground is moving. Kumar may sink, but can also take them with him. A nervous BJP has rushed to undo the damage in recent days.

Contrast this to a fortnight back when Chirag had boasted on Twitter: “This time a BJP-LJP government in Bihar”. Some key Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP leaders joined the LJP to contest on its ticket. But now Chirag no longer wants to be the only one to be blamed for his decision to contest seats against the JD-U.

It was his late father, Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan who passed away on October 8, who “instigated” him, Chirag told NDTV a few days ago. The BJP’s top leadership, including Union Home Minister Amit Shah, leaders Shahnawaz Hussain, Nityanand Rai and Ram Kripal Yadav were not only in the know of his party’s plan but backed it, Chirag said.

The turnaround in Bihar politics has been remarkable in the last 15 days. An election that looked like a walk in the park for the National Democratic Alliance, which the BJP leads, is now in flux. The alliance has stopped talking of winning 180-plus seats.

Moreover, the BJP has started to defend Kumar’s governance record, something that several of its leaders in the run-up to the elections had undermined and demanded that Kumar be replaced by someone like BJP’s Rai, currently Shah’s junior minister in the Union home ministry, after the elections.

“What the Paswans have done is a weakness of the Dalit politics for decades. Ram Vilas Paswan in his attempt to establish his son in the NDA after his passing away became a puppet in the hands of the BJP. The script is to end the political career of Kumar, to get Dalits and OBCs to fight among themselves but to ensure upper castes do not get blamed,” said Ashok Bharti, a veteran observer of Dalit politics in the heartland.

Shambhu Srivastava, a close associate of Kumar since the days of the Samata Party in the mid-1990s, believes the political machinations are more complex than this larger “conspiracy” to hurt the social justice movement. He is of the view that the BJP was afraid Kumar, after the election results, might repeat an Uddhav Thackeray in Bihar with the help of his old socialist friend Lalu Prasad, the Left parties, and the Congress. According to Congress insiders, Kumar has always kept a channel open with its leaders.

The BJP is unable to forget the humiliation of the 2015 Bihar assembly polls either. The BJP leadership was confident of Modi’s popularity and its own better strike rate, said Srivastava.

“A subterranean campaign started that heaped much of the anti-incumbency of the last 15 years, and the insensitivity shown by the government in handling the migrants’ crisis solely on Kumar, and not its coalition partner, which is the BJP. The BJP believed this campaign will not affect the party, while Modi’s widespread popularity will help it reach the striking distance to the majority mark of 122 seats,” said Srivastava.

As does happen, even the best of scripts can go awry. Kumar provoked the Paswans further yet again with his “Mahadalit” stratagem by roping in former confidant Jitan Ram Manjhi-led Hindustani Awam Morcha into the fold of the NDA. He then lay silent, as did his brother-in-arm deputy CM and BJP leader, Sushil Modi, as the LJP, led by Chirag, overreached itself.

Meanwhile, another surprising development was taking place in the Opposition camp, the Mahagathbandhan. Tejashwi Yadav, leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, showed maturity beyond his years to accommodate the Congress and the Left parties.

He also rid the alliance of parties like Upendra Kushwaha-led Rashtriya Loktantrik Samata Party and Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insaan Party. None can be confident which side the two might choose if there is a hung assembly, while their respective electoral performance has been abysmal. “The message in forcing the two out of the MGB was simple — good riddance,” said an RJD leader.

The RJD willing to part with as many as 70 seats for the Congress has potentially consolidated the vote of the Muslims with the alliance and sent a positive message to the upper castes. The 29 seats to the Left parties have meant the alliance now projects a broader unity of the poor, which have suffered the most during the lockdown.

The tables have turned. An election whose result was thought to be a foregone conclusion is now interestingly poised. Tejaswi Yadav no longer speaks of caste, but of development and appeals to the youth — nearly 50 per cent of the electorate. As the MGB gets its act together, the NDA is increasingly looking in disarray.

It is a crisis, say those who have known Kumar for years, that is tailor-made for the Bihar chief minister. Insiders say the BJP is now concerned the LJP putting up a good fight against the JD-U would mean benefitting the MGB in those seats. Moreover, Chirag and Tejaswi are known to be friends, and the former is battling for his political survival.

A fortnight from now we would know whether the puppeteers find themselves outmanoeuvred. An interesting post-poll scenario is on the anvil. Also, it remains to be seen if Chirag is rewarded for his efforts by being inducted into the Union Cabinet, of which his late father was a member.

  • BIHAR POLLS 2020

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