“Silent unrest about violence and local issues is going to be translated in the voting patterns, but we don’t know to what extent”: In Conversation with Sarthak Bagchi

In this conversation with Vasundhara Sirnate Drennan, Professor Sarthak Bagchi explains what is important to voters in Bihar as they make their decisions for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and what is different about the electoral battle in Bihar this year. 

By Vasundhara Sirnate Drennan.

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Q: What are you seeing on the ground in Bihar?

A: Thank you so much for Vasundhara for that very generous introduction and thank you for having me here. Yes, I have just returned today from Patna. The sense that I got of the campaign in Patna is that there is no campaign. That is a very weird thing to say for somebody who is coming from Bihar because every time there is an election and Bihar is such a politically conscious place. But this time actually there is no campaign. And in fact, I was speaking to one political merchandise seller, who has a shop just behind the Patna High Court. His name is Satyendra Narayan Singh. And he said that there is no campaign because earlier by this time period, this close to the elections he would have done business of two-three crore rupees every day, being the only political supplier in Patna. But this time, he was not even selling goods of 2000-3000 rupees. So, he was ruing the fact that there were no campaigns because candidates are not being declared or candidates are being declared with much delay. In fact, he said that Laloo Yadav being in jail is also a reason for there not being an active campaign as such, like the festive or the sacred election theory that a lot of anthropologists say. So, this time apparently all that festive, or the celebration of an election campaign is kind of missing as of today.

Q: I just want to take you back to the Bihar assembly elections of 2015, which were basically fought on the idea of vikas or development versus samman (dignity) for people who have historically not been in a position of privilege. The two corners of that contest were the National Democratic Alliance on one side, which included the BJP, the Lok Jan Shakti, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party and the Hindu Awaam Morcha. Then you had the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) which had the Rashtriya Janta Dal, the Congress and the Janta Dal (United) on the other hand. In that contest, the mahagathbandhan won and their Chief Minister came to power. At that time, you had written that campaigning was full of excitement. You had a whole theory about how the NDA and Mr. Modi and Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav got very different campaigning styles to the electoral contest. So based on that election what can we say that how these parties are being seen in this current Lok Sabha election?

A: That actually is a very good question to begin with because this election is being seen in the context of the 2015 assembly election. A lot has changed, I mean, the political field in Bihar has altered very dynamically in these last four years. The gathbandhan or the alliances that were there, which won and defeated the famous ‘Modi wave’ in 2015 have fallen apart. Nitish Kumar has gone back to the NDA fold. Rashtriya Lok Samta party’s Upendra Kushwaha, who was a Union Minister in the Modi government till some time ago, he is now with RJD. Congress is also of course there with RJD. But also new entrants like the Hindustan Awaam Morcha of Jitan Ram Manjhi, the former chief minister, that is also with RJD in the mahagathbandhan. And there is also a new player called Vikassheel Insan Party (VIP) of Mukesh Sahni is also there with the RJD. Mukesh Sahni was earlier campaigning for the NDA in the 2015 elections.

So, there is a lot of alteration in the political alliances that have happened in these four years. That has also altered the way in which the campaign is being meted out now. From what little I could see of the glimpses of the campaign on the ground – I actually went to two places, I went to Siwan and Begusarai in this recent research trip and I found that one thing is very important to note at this juncture – that this election is not a very national issue-based election. There is a national media interpretation that is also emphasizing on the importance of national issues: Pulwama, or say Balakot or those kinds of things. But what I saw from the ground is that people are actually concerned about local issues or local concerns. So it is kind of more emphasizing of local concerns over national issues.

When I was speaking to voters in Begusarai, they are more concerned with jobs and they are more concerned with jobs in their constituency, but also the development of their constituency – local development issues they were talking about. And also they were talking empathetically about the identity of the local candidate than of the Prime Minister per se. This is the same thing which has happened in Siwan. Even in Arrah where the BJP has a good candidate, the talk is not about the BJP per se, but about R.K. Singh who is an honest IAS officer and who is supposed to be from the Rajput caste. His personal identity and his personal character is creating a kind of connection with the voters. Voters are talking about those kind of local candidate-based issues as compared to the national issues.

I think that will be a big impact as the campaign proceeds. As we have seen now from Prime Minister Modi’s last two rallies, he is also trying to invoke the undercurrents of religious polarisation and other things, which is in a way giving the campaign back to the shape of a national issue, which can be a uniform issue to reach out to a pan-India vote. It is still important to understand that it is still essentially a local issue, local candidacy driven election campaign at least till now.

Q: You pre-empted my next question which was going to be about the idea of the grand nationalism which is being sold by the Bhartiya Janta Party: the Pulwama attack and its aftermath, the Balakot strikes and how this has supposedly led to a rise in Mr. Modi’s popularity amongst the public. Since you have been on the ground and are saying that none of this is passing muster with the local population, especially in a place like Begusarai. I’m going to direct my next question then to..

A: If I can just interrupt, I actually still have something to add to that question. In places where local candidates are not giving in to the national narratives or local candidates are strong candidates. So one of the major things it seems, from Bihar at least, is that the mahagathbandhan has failed to capitalise on the numerous self-goals that Prime Minister Modi’s government has done in the past few years. When I was observing the campaign in one of the villages in a Brahmin tola in Begusarai, people were talking about demonetisation, the notebandi as kind of a biggest flaw. So, it is  happening in a Brahmin tola in a constituency which is predominantly an upper caste constituency with 60 percent Bhumihar population. So upper caste voters are actually talking about notebandi as the biggest flaw. So, where there are strong candidates, they are able to capitalise on this. But again, I was in Gandhinagar attending Yogi Adityanath’s speech before I went to Bihar. In his hour-long speech there were only hardly three-four minutes of development and that too was like passing comments. So most of the thing was how starting from the Mughal oppression to the Congress oppression coming in to the terrorism and the entire jingoistic nationalism and how Pakistan matters so much in the polls. So, it is being consciously brought out by the BJP through these kind of rhetorical campaigners or campaigners which draw a huge following or draw a huge round of applause every time there is a snide comment on Pakistan.

But in places where there are strong candidates, who are themselves driving the campaign and not following the national narrative or discourse, so those places are emerging out of the national shadow or national image kind of a campaign.

Q: Let me focus the discussion on what the media is calling the ‘Battle of Begusarai’. A place which has also been referred to as ‘Little Moscow’ because of the history of landlord and landless struggles that have happened there, where the CPI(M) has championed the cause of the landless. It is from this constituency that Kanhaiya Kumar has finally entered politics and has taken centre stage. So, what did you see when you were following Kanhaiya Kumar’s campaign in Begusarai?

A: Yes, it is called the ‘Little Moscow’ and was also called the ‘Leningrad of Bihar’ and CPI [Communist Party of India] was instrumental in the struggle for the landless peasants and land redistribution in Begusarai particularly. And it has a long tradition of Left sympathy. So even in the last election which was under the so called ‘Modi wave’, the BJP won that seat but still, the Left candidate got around two lakh votes. That was, I think, a sizeable number for something which happened during a ‘wave’ election.

This time, I think, Kanhaiya’s candidature is very important from the point of view of the revival of the Left per se. I was lucky enough to travel with CPI as well as with CPI-ML [Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist)] which is the other influential Left party in Bihar. These are the only two Left parties which are politically relevant in Bihar and not so much CPM which is otherwise the national political force from the Left. I saw that there was a lot coordination, a lot of on-the-ground support, back support which is happening between CPI and CPI-ML activists for Kanhaiya’s campaign. There is this common understanding that this is a very good chance that lies in front of the left Left to revive and to come back to the national limelight.

The kind of traction that Kanhaiya has got from national media is unprecedented for any Left candidate in Bihar. In the two days that I was there in Begusarai with Kanhaiya’s campaign team, I saw at least five-six national journalists, who came for interviews and live discussions and other things. There is a very national presence that he has captured, the national mind. What is important was that when we were travelling around the Panchayats, there is a very strong, what I call the ‘recall value’. When we ask “do you know who Kanhaiya is?”, people seem to recall that yes they know who Kanhaiya is and actually  they want him to reach out. It is a very big constituency with 19.5 lac voters, that is, almost 2 million voters in one Lok Sabha constituency. That is almost like most of the western European countries. Netherlands perhaps has a little more than that. In that sense it is a big constituency.

It will be important to see how Kanhaiya is actually able to translate that recognition and the brand value that is there at the national level on the ground level and make a connect with the voters. His campaign so far has been effective in doing that. The slogan that he has come up with is basically is called, ‘Neta Nahi Beta’. So, in that there is already a ring of the son of the soil and he is the beta (son) of the people, so he is from them. And of course Giriraj Singh being an outsider, although he is a bhumihar, which was a clever choice by the BJP, but he is still an outsider to the constituency as he is from the neighbouring Nawada constituency. So Kanhaiya has a local connect which he is trying to capitalise on. Also, his mother was an anganwadi worker, so there is that kind of an empathy for someone who has been related to the state administration. So, the campaign team is also trying to reach to Jeevika workers, anganwadi workers and trying to connect to the women, who are also very politically conscious voters in Bihar. So, in that sense the campaign is shaping up well.

At this point to me it seems like that there are three candidates in Begusarai, there is also Tanweer Hassan who is not to be discounted at all. But right now, as they stand today, I think it is going to be a fight between Giriraj Singh and Kanhaiya. There is also a lot of Muslim youth support which is coming towards Kanhaiya. While I was there, there was a Youth called Wali Rehman, who came down from Calcutta to campaign for Kanhaiya and he actually tweeted or something. So, he is ringing a bell with the youth and is making a connection. My sources in Patna tell me that in the coming three days, there are large groups of young students, who are all hailing from Begusarai and have been studying across various universities in India like Allahabad University, Aligarh Muslim University – they are going back to Begusarai to campaign for Kanhaiya. That will add to the strength of youth driven politics which is a very refreshing thing to see.

Q: Of course, all the best to him and his campaign. He is up against stalwarts like Giriraj Singh from the BJP and Tanweer Hassan from the Rashtriya Janta Dal. Although he lost the last time, but he [Tanweer Hassan] is still a very strong contender as you say. But I also want to ask you about the caste angle to these elections. Bihar has a huge caste category that was created by Nitish Kumar called the Mahadalits. Do you have a sense of how the Mahadalit vote will be split in this election? 

A: The Mahadalit vote is very precarious. Of course, there are things that the Nitish government has done for the Dalits and Mahadalits. First, they made the Mahadalit category and excluded the Paswans from the Mahadalit category. Then there was a lot of demand and angst and agitation against it, following which they brought them back to the Mahadalit fold. So essentially, the Mahadalit fold is nothing but the Dalit fold in itself. But what this has done is that Nitish Kumar has been consciously doing some policy level changes and implementations through his governance that has directly impacted on the material conditions of the Dalits and Mahadalits. One example of this is that in recent years he has implemented SC Entrepreneur Development loans. Under this scheme the Bihar government gives 10 lakh rupees to the SC [Scheduled Caste] youth who have a certain level of education for them to open up a business. They are promoting this highly subsidised scheme wherein 5 lakhs must be repaid over a long period of time and the other 5 lakhs is subsidised. Essentially it gives a lot of financial mobility to the SC youth. So, what that is doing now is that, in the first round of training for that scheme, all the party workers who belong to the SC community have benefitted from that scheme. Of course, they are campaigning hard and percolating the message down to the grassroots level in support of Nitish Kumar’s government.

But at the same time, if you look at the NDA candidate this time from a rough list of what I have gathered is that there are about 12-15 candidates from the upper caste out of the 40, which is disproportional to the population. So, this is not really giving a strong message to the Mahadalits. Among the Dalit community, the Lok Janshakti which is represented by the Paswans is the only party which has got 4 seats and the EBCs [Extremely Backward Castes] have got about 6 seats. So, there is a kind of a disbalance when the ticket distribution has happened.

Similarly, that has also happened with the mahagathbandhan where the Ravidasis have got 4 tickets and the Yadavs have got 10 tickets. So Yadavs are replacing the upper castes in the mahagathbandhan candidate fold. So it is a kind of a similar thing. So, at the alliance level, the Mahadalits or Dalits are not getting that kind of a uniform representation. Then it again comes back to the local level equations – which candidate has been supporting their needs and their causes, which candidate has been strong at the local level. So again, that kind of shifting happens and falls back on the local level complexities.

Q: What about the Congress? How are they doing? They won very few seats in the 2015 election. So, are they at all a contender?  Has the entry of Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, all the heavy hitters in the Congress, changed anything on the ground for them?

A: To answer that I would have to quote Prannoy Roy who gave an interview about the Congress. He said, and I quote, “The Congress is preparing perhaps for the elections in 2050.” I think there is certain amount of truth in that. Congress failed to negotiate strong seats where it could win. It is actually being taken for granted or taken for a very bad bargain by the Rashtriya Janta Dal where they have ended up with 9 seats. Out of those 9, the winnability is very less in any of these seats. So, Congress has effectively given up on its chances of having any good impact coming out of Bihar per se. And I don’t really see things happening.

There was also Kirti Jha, Kirti Azad, who was bargaining for Darbhanga seat, but it went to RJD’s Abdul Bari Siddiqui and he was the sitting MP of Darbhanga. Now there is a chance he will be getting Madhubani. But Madhubani is already being promised to Mukesh Sahni’s VIP. It is the manner in which it has let itself be negotiated for or negotiated to, that speaks volumes about its confidence in going for the polls.

At one point, in eastern UP, they were trying to revive the party at the cost of hurting the Samajwadi Party and the BSP alliance. If they had confidence, they could have done the same thing in Bihar and gone ahead with it no matter what. But they are allowing the mahagathbandhan to give three seats to a party which was born in November 2018, which is VIP. They are giving six seats to Upendra Kushwaha’s party which was in Narendra Modi’s government till about October 2018. So, this shows perhaps the lack of ground-based support that the Congress used to enjoy once, and it doesn’t seem relevant anymore to me.

Q: Could it be that these national parties are unable to read the signals on the ground in Bihar correctly? From what you are saying, even the BJP has a tough contest in Bihar.

A: Yes. To be able to see the message from the ground or to be able to read the message, the BJP, on any given day is at a better footing because it has a very strong organizational structure. It is high time we acknowledge the kind of organizational setup and  organizational robustness that the BJP has actually built in its party in the last ten years, I would say. It is high time that journalists also stop linking BJPs’ electoral gains just to the presence of RSS on the ground. Because that is not happening. I think it is much more deeper than the RSS presence on the ground. I think that the BJP itself has created a large organizational structure which is very robust and which is very efficient in taking the voices from the ground to the decision-making authorities. This is missing in the Congress and I have seen it to be missing in the Maharashtra Congress as well. That was a state where the Congress was in power in 2014 and back then also there was lack of organization and coherence was missing. It can be because a lot of desertions are happening because people are leaving the Congress and a lot of the Maratha stalwarts are leaving Congress because they are not happy with the seats or the way in which the election management is happening. Congress somewhere has not perhaps got its house in order which is costing its ability to listen to the voices on the ground.

Q: So. what you are saying is that unlike the BJP, the Congress has trouble projecting power to its voters and the BJP, because of its extensive organization, doesn’t really have the same handicap. At the national level there has been a lot of talk about the BJP’s links to rising intolerance. There have been lynchings, cattle related or otherwise, people are attacked because they are either Dalit or Muslim or tribal and so on. What does the voter in Bihar have to say about all this?

A: I was not travelling widely enough to get a very cross-sectional responses from different people but largely there is a sense that Nitish Kumar has delivered some things in Bihar and of course Modi has also delivered. So, when we talk of absence of development, it is not because development has vanished, it is because development has been delayed and now what? So that is the next question. That is also what Kanhaiya’s campaign is focusing on  that, okay fine you have given the Ujwala cylinders and you are taking credit but where is the next cylinder coming from? How many of them are getting the next cylinder? So, it is the sustainability of the development which is becoming an issue. Linked to the sustainability is a kind of an accountability. And now when people have seen development, even in Bihar in the last 15 years of Nitish Kumar’s rule they have seen development; how it looks, how it feels. There is a kind of intimacy with development which has developed over the last 15-20 years. Now they are questioning the next level: sustainability of development and also accountability. I think any party which has to come to power will have to cater to these issues – sustainability of development and accountability that people will be questioning. So, if there are no jobs people will be questioning.

Q: So the voters do not have much to say about the rising violence or it is just that Bihar is so different that these things have not caught public imagination there? What is your take about that?

A: Bihar is a little different. Since Lalu Yadav’s time, Bihar was one of the few places in which there was not very sporadic or largescale Hindu-Muslim violence. So, Bihar is a little different case in that context. I have actually spoken to people, who have been to parts of eastern UP, where the Congress campaign is on a very high force. In those places, voters are not coming out openly against Modi or coming out openly against these things but definitely there is a sense that people are not liking the violence or not liking the high-handedness that certain BJP leaders are providing including the Chief Minister from UP. There is a kind of a silent unrest and I think it is a very important unrest to understand politically because it is the same kind of thing which was also happening in 2015. In 2015 elections what had happened was that the NDA had created this big hawa. The campaign was kind of mechanised – event management scale like coming in helicopters.There was the Vikas Rath and Modi Rath and all that whereas, there was a more organic campaign happening on the ground where JD(U) people were going on cycles and promoting and reaching out – basically more ‘rooted to the ground’ kind of a campaign. Then there was the silent shift among the EBC [Extremely Backward Caste] voters, which were decisive after all in the verdict. They were not in the village level discussions. They were not discussing politics outside village panchayats. The upper caste people are usually vocal, and they will be sharp in their arguments and they will be making forceful points. It was the silent voters who were going back and then deciding amongst themselves. They know when to speak and they speak when it matters. But I don’t know for sure if that kind of silent assertion will be decisive in this election or not. I’m not indicating towards to that either. But I’m saying if there is a kind of silent unrest or unhappiness about the violence and other things, I think it is going to be translated in the voting patterns, but we don’t know to what extent.

Q: So they are just going to be quiet and silently voice their protests on the day of polling.

A: Probably but to what extent will be speculation and it will not be fair to do that.

Sarthak Bagchi is an Assistant Professor at the School of Arts and Sciences. He worked as a doctoral research scholar at the Institute for Area Studies, Leiden University, in the Netherlands. For his doctoral dissertation, Sarthak has conducted a comparative study of clientelistic politics in the assembly elections of Bihar and Maharashtra. Trained as a political scientist from the University of Hyderabad, where he did his MA and MPhil, Sarthak has been a keen observer of electoral politics, party systems and state politics in India. His research interests lie in the topics of patronage politics, populism, electoral politics, state-society relations, party politics, informal politics and comparative politics. He has also conducted research to understand politics in other countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and the Netherlands. He also writes on politics for general audiences in The Wire, The Indian Express and The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. Sarthak has also worked as a journalist with TV news channel, News X, before entering academics. Sarthak has previously worked with KITLV (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies), Leiden and Göttingen University, Germany as researcher and post-doctoral researcher respectively.

Vasundhara Sirnate Drennan is the Director of Research, The Polis Project, Inc. 

Transcribed by Preetika Nanda

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