The People’s Agenda Won Bihar Elections
What Bihar saw during the polls in early October was the beginning of a politics driven by the upsurge of progressivism. Public discourse was centered around the welfare and safety of jobs, education and health
Words by N Sai Balaji
December 14, 2020
On a dusty morning in late October, an elderly man stopped in his tracks while walking back home through the narrow and dug-up lanes of Paliganj, Bihar to greet Sandeep Saurav, a 33-year-old candidate from the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (CPI ML). Saurav was contesting in the 2020 Bihar Legislative Assembly election from Paliganj, a rural seat about 60 km away from Patna, with Mahagathbandhan (MGB) – also known as the ‘Grand Alliance’ formed by the coalition of several state parties – in the late-2020 Bihar elections. The elderly man requested Saurav to wait and stepped inside his home. He returned with a broad smile and a 500-Rupee note to donate to Saurav’s campaign. It was a small but revealing moment that captured the mood of the Bihar election. The older generations were seeing the younger as their hope for the future.
On October 7 2020, as the sun was about to set in Agiaon, a Vidhan Sabha constituency in the Bhojpur district of Bihar, Manoj Manzil, a CPI ML candidate and Revolutionary Youth Association (RYA) National President, was arrested by Bihar’s police after filing his nomination for the state elections. He was picked up on charges pertaining to a case where he was accused of preventing public officials from doing their duty. This is one of the twenty-eight odd cases filed against him for his left activism by the district administration and local state authorities.
Most of these cases are concerned with Manzil’s involvement in the ‘Sadak Pe School’ (School on the Road) movement. This was a campaign started by him in 2017, with other activists in Bhojpur, against the lack of school facilities in the region. Additionally, when companies and contractors failed to compensate migrant workers’ families for the death of their loved ones due to work-related deaths, Manzil, along with local leaders from CPI ML, held protests with the deceased’s family members in front of district offices, or highways, until the rightful compensation was paid. In over 30 cases the administration has been forced to pay compensation to the workers’ families. The fear of people’s unity forced the administration to silence and victimise Manoj continuously. Three days later Manzil was granted bail by a local court in Bhojpur. At the time of his release, Manzil was greeted by hordes of young people, who paraded through Agiaon celebrating his release.
What Bihar saw during the polls in early October was the beginning of a politics driven by the upsurge of progressivism. The public discourse around this election was centered around the welfare and safety of jobs, education and health. More specifically, at stake were the increasingly precarious lives of Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) health professionals, Rasoiyas (mid-day meal cooks), Anganwadi Sevikas and Sahayikas, farmers and migrant labourers. In this regard, the economic and social losses faced by the people of Bihar because of the national lockdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic became the primary agenda of the Bihar state election.
Women mobilised effectively during the election campaigns while facing the brunt of falling incomes and rising unemployment. Shashi Yadav, the State Secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) and the State President of ASHA Workers Union of Bihar, contested from the Digha constituency of Patna with the CPI ML (as part of MGB). She became one of the most active and prominent advocates for the rights of ASHA, Rasoiya, and Anganwadi workers, and others who were demanding dignity of labour and minimum wages. Yadav lost the seat after a tough fight, but like other CPI ML candidates she took to people the 25-point commitment for change of MGB to the masses. The 25-point commitment for change committed to double the honorarium of ASHA, Rasoiya, Angawadi workers and others, while regularising Jeevika workers and implementing pro-poor policies.
Every election is an enormous democratic exercise. But the ones in which our constitutional ideals are at stake are especially significant. And this election was trickier still, considering that it took place amidst a global pandemic. Amidst this, the opposition parties found themselves shouldering the onerous task of challenging the authoritarian status-quo.
The politics of Bihar has two major complications: the first is the thrall of politics along the upper-lower caste lines, and the second, are the tensions within the various communities of the scheduled-castes. Alliance politics in Bihar have often meant that each coalition must cement their respective caste combinations. JDU has built its base among sections of women, Dalits and Extreme Backward Castes (EBC’s) and its alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is primarily known to cater to the upper castes i.e. Brahmins, Bhumiars, Baniyas and Rajputs. Similarly, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) known for its Muslim-Yadav (MY) base needed support from other social groups in order to stay in race to win elections. It is here that CPI ML brings the necessary social combination to MGB.
The election pundits gave the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) a cakewalk victory. However, the election turned out to be a seat-to-seat contest with MGB sweeping the first phase of elections in South Bihar and NDA coming back in the second and third phase i.e. Central and North Bihar. NDA managed to scrape the majority mark of 122 with 125 seats and a vote share of 37.26% votes, only 0.03% more than MGB which managed 37.23% of votes and 110 seats. The election was riddled with controversies, especially the counting process with RJD alleging violations in counting in at least 20 seats and CPI ML raising questions in three seats. CPI ML has filed complaints with Election Commission of India (ECI). Candidates from RJD and CPI ML have asked Returning Officers to make available CCTV the footage of the counting process, which is yet to be handed to the respective candidates raising suspicion on neutrality of ECI.
Nitish Kumar returns as the Chief Minister of Bihar for the fourth consecutive time, however with a depleted strength of 41 seats for JDU and at a lesser bargaining power in the coalition compared to 74 seats for BJP. By claiming two Deputy Chief Minister posts in the NDA government, BJP has already made its intentions clear on who will be calling the shots. BJP has been long waiting to replicate the Uttar Pradesh (UP) model of political domination and polarisation in Bihar. However, that won't be an easy task for BJP considering the increased strength of Left especially CPI ML who with their 12 MLAs will continue to take fight to the government – to make the incumbents address the issues of rising unemployment, public education especially schools, worsening economic misery of workers, farmers, women and other issues of common man.
In this context, how should we read the Bihar election? From where do we understand it's inherent dynamics, and what should we interpret from the election results? Will the Left especially CPI ML be effective in tackling issues of the common man against hate, communalism and increasing marginalisation? To begin, we can look at the performance of the parties associated with the Left, and within this Left, the role of the CPI ML. Out of the 29 seats contested, the Left won 16 (55% of seats). The CPI ML 12 out of 19 (63% seats).
What is significant here is not just the number of seats won by the Left, or the CPI ML, but the role played by the party and the Left at large in shaping an agenda for the MGB, and the Bihar elections. The general trend during recent state and national elections has been of the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (BJP-RSS) setting the agenda, and the other parties responding to it. However, in Bihar, it was the people of Bihar who, through their fight under the leadership of the Left, set the agenda for this election. This election was contested by reacting to demands made by the people, rather than dictating communalism and divisive politics.
We are now nearing the end of 2020, and India is currently facing the highest levels of unemployment in it's independent history. This economic crisis has a strong resonance on the ground. 58 percent of the population in Bihar is under the age of twenty-five. As a result, the state has been the worst hit in terms of unemployment. Demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax (GST), and the blanket declaration of a nation-wide lockdown, have pushed the Indian economy into recession. Nitish Kumar and his government have repeatedly failed to provide alternative employment avenues for the youth in Bihar, or effective policies to ease the economic distress faced by most households. In the lead up to the election, this anger was visible on the ground, and it affected JDU-BJP (Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party) the most.
BJP tried to contain the anti-incumbency of JDU-BJP government by pushing JDU to a corner and propping up Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) headed by Chirag Paswan (son of late Ramvilas Paswan, Union Minister for Food and Consumer Affairs in the Modi government). By seizing influence from the JDU, the BJP wanted to transfer the support of EBCs and Dalit communities to themselves. This is a tactic the BJP has previously attempted in UP where it attempted to increase its voter base by catering to social groups that were left out or were antagonised by existing social groups of other parties. The plan was to utilise LJP to take advantage of anti-incumbency against Nitish, win seats and contribute in the post-poll scenario if BJP emerges as single largest party and yet falls short of majority. BJP felt it could tide the anti-incumbency wave against Nitish by capitalising on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, deep into the campaign, especially after the first phase of election, BJP realised that this strategy was not helping. LJP was not winning but was eating up their own NDA votes enabling a three-cornered contest thereby opening up more space for MGB to mobilise and consolidate. In the project of sidelining the JDU, the LJP and BJP exposed themselves to people of Bihar where it was seen as LJP acting towards the interests of BJP, which despite being in alliance with JDU, was constantly plotting its downfall.
In the end, as election results show, even with the JDU’s vote, the BJP barely managed to scrape through many of its desired seats, and thus could not achieve majority party status in Bihar. This is indicative of the fact that Modi popularity was not endorsed by the people of Bihar. The poorly-managed COVID-19 lockdown, rising unemployment rates and failing economy, ultimately hurt the BJP’s efforts to dominate this election.
Overall, the 2020 election belongs to the youth of Bihar. The youth-led movements against unemployment, lack of schools and public education, forced the JDU-BJP to respond to their questions. The promise of 10-lakh government jobs within the first cabinet meeting by MGB along with making contract teachers permanent, increasing old-age pensions, bringing dignity in employment, and fulfilling equal pay for equal work along with ensuring minimum wage were all part of the people’s agenda. JDU-BJP, which first rejected these as populist and undoable measures later promised 19-lakh job opportunities. Undoubtedly, the role of AISA and RYA in the past five-years of mobilising, uniting and fighting for student-youth has been the key factor that determined the direction of the elections. Even during the lockdown, when political activity was subdued due to restrictions, AISA-RYA along with various student-youth groups initiated online and offline protests like tali-thali bajao (clapping and banging plates) protest on September 5, 2020; calls for lighting candles on September 9, and the celebration of September 17, PM Modi’s birthday, as National Unemployment Day.
On the other hand, JDU-BJP doesn't have a single youth leader who represents the aspirations of the young in Bihar. The results showed when CPI ML out of its 19 seats contested six youngsters under the age of 35-years, with three of them winning. AISA National General Secretary and former JNUSU General Secretary Sandeep Sourav won Paliganj seat with a majority of 28,000-plus votes and RYA National President Manoj Mazil, a fiery Dalit leader won his Agiaon seat with a majority of 48,000-plus votes. Similarly, another young leader who has been part of student-youth movement Ajit Kumar Kushwaha, won Dumraon seat with a 15,000-plus majority. The other three, Ranjit Ram from Kalyanpur, Jitradra Paswan from Bhorey and Aftab Alam from Aurai, lost after giving a tough fight to JDU-BJP. These achievements weren’t easy. They are a result of grassroots movements. This election was one of, by, and for the masses: Teachers working under contract, ASHA and Rasoiya workers, landless peasants, farmers, workers and other sections of working class populations found their voice. They broke traditional caste barriers to vote for MGB, especially for CPI ML, showing the way for a new genre of political mobilisation within the Left.
N Sai Balaji is the National President of All India Students’ Association (AISA) and a former President of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Student Union (JNUSU).