The Secular Dilemma: Understanding the Bihar Elections 2020

By Shah Nawaz Afaque,

The state of Bihar witnessed its high profile and extremely charged Legislative Assembly Elections amidst a pandemic situation and that’s not the only ironic aspect about the Bihar elections. From the way election campaigns were held amid the pandemica to the unexpected outcome of the polls, everything about this election was ironic and marked discontinuation from the electoral trend of the nation. Even more ironical was the role played by smaller parties like Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP) and AIMIM in determining the fate of the three giants – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Janata Dal-United (JDU) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

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The Election 2020 can rightly be considered as the dawn of newer aspirations in Bihar and the disintegration of older ties. Nitish Kumar’s infamous “ant bhala to sab bhala” (All’s well that ends well) remark that was taken by many in opposition as a sign of Nitish’s desperation, well summarises the significance of this election, as the onset of the new and demise of the old.

The Outcome

The Bihar Elections was contested on 243 Vidhan Sabha seats. The polls were conducted in three phases and the cumulative voter turnout was recorded at 56.4%. The RJD came out as the single largest party with 75 seats. The BJP wasn’t far behind and managed to bag 74 seats while the JDU stumbled at 43. The Indian National Congress (INC) performed poorly and managed to win only 19 of the 70 seats it contested.

Of the four major parties, only the BJP was able to significantly increase its seat share from 53 in 2015 elections to 74 this time. Among the smaller parties, the Left performed quite spectacularly by winning in 16 of the 29 seats they contested from. The LJP served the higher purpose for which they fielded their candidates on 137 seats (mostly against JDU candidates), managed to win just one seat but saw its vote share increase to 5.66%. The only minor party that surprised everyone with its performance was the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM). Owaisi’s party managed to bag 5 seats, four more than last time, and all of them in the Seemanchal region.

The Campaign

Bihar, like other north Indian states, was not used to having a clean and issue-specific electoral campaign. Campaigns in Bihar traditionally have the caste element at its core, and the new BJP making inroads into Bihar adds a communal colour to the campaign.

Earlier in 2020 during the Delhi Elections, Delhiites witnessed an unparalleled communalisation of the campaign by BJP and no matter how hard the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) leadership tried to deflect the campaign from polarisation on religious lines to developmental narratives, BJP’s vote share climbed up from 32.2% in 2015 elections to 38.51% in 2020. Likewise, in the 2015 Bihar Assembly Elections too, the BJP resorted to its hyper nationalistic campaign mood even though the outcome didn’t come in favour of the BJP. But this time, we got to see a different side of BJP altogether.

Perhaps, it happened for the first time after its massive 2019 Lok Sabha victory that BJP had to fight an election completely on profane grounds, but does that mean religious polarisation has receded? I don’t think so. On the contrary, polarisation is now naturalised into the Indian psyche, and the unexpected expansion of the two parties in Bihar – BJP and AIMIM, just shows the dangerous trend that is being set for the times to come. The softening of BJP’s attitude in this election might have been a political strategy to appear more sensitive to the harsh socio-economic conditions that people of Bihar have been subjected to. BJP realized that it was something that communal and nationalist rhetorics cannot solve.

But the seeds of communalism have long been sown and no matter how we try to understand the growing popularity of parties like the BJP and AIMIM, we have properly reached a post-secular era. The politics of the post-secular era is not marked by a total demise of the secular but a more vulgar practice of choosing between the secular and communal lines of politics as per need of the situation. The secular era of politics is never going to come back and political parties, including secular ones like AAP and INC, have reformed their attitudes a bit to survive in the new paradigm.

RJD’s existential crisis

Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal has been going through an existential crisis since the rise to power of Narendra Modi at the Centre. Even though the UPA managed to form a government in Bihar following the 2015 mandate, the government fell within two years of its forming as Nitish Kumar fled to NDA’s camp. The NDA has since then been in power and RJD had to work on its image problem in order to make a positive impression on Bihar’s newer generation.

Muslims and Yadavs have traditionally constituted a major chunk of RJD’s vote bank. The Muslim-Yadav alliance solidified in the face of a forward caste hegemony in the state at a time when the Muslim and Yadav community faced rampant social and institutional discrimination. Lalu Yadav, a product of the Janata Party’s movement against the then Congress’ autocratic rule, envisioned a more dominant and assertive Yadav identity, and Muslims alongside helped him build that regime in exchange for their security against the communal forces.

But these are different times. The young generation of Yadavs have a split identity. They have started identifying themselves as part of the mainstream and don’t relate to the Yadav experience of the 80s and 90s anymore. And much to RJD’s dismay, the Yadavs voted in huge numbers for Narendra Modi’s Hindutva agenda in the 2019 general elections. RJD couldn’t even win a single Lok Sabha seat. The message was loud and clear. Narendra Modi’s vision was positively received by the younger generation of Yadavs, who now more than their caste identity could also proudly assert their Hindu identity and become a part of Modi’s new India.

The secular dilemma

At this juncture, when the comfortable shelter of the secular parties was lifted off their heads, the Muslims of Bihar were now faced with a dilemma. They felt cheated when RJD’s traditional vote bank started to shift towards BJP. They then realised they couldn’t do the same and that their over-reliance on such secular parties had only disempowered them in the longer run.

Security after all is not all that a community requires in order to prosper. In a democracy like India, prosperity requires active participation and just a half-hearted representation under someone else’s banner is not enough.

In Muslim circles it could be heard, “If the Muslim population is significantly larger than the Yadav population in Bihar, why can’t we have a Muslim Chief Minister?” And do the Muslims seeking for a Muslim chief minister qualify as a communal expression, when almost all caste groups and communities in Bihar seek for a Chief Minister from their own caste group? I don’t think so.

And this is how the AIMIM angle comes into play. The mandate given to AIMIM by Muslims of Bihar tells a story of their reinforced belief in the Indian democratic process: active participation, as opposed to passive representation under some secular party, is what they (Muslims) demand now. Small parties play a very important role in the formation of governments, and thus, act as a powerful pressure group in getting their demands fulfilled.

And in the face of MLAs and MPs of secular parties deserting their camps and fleeing to BJP every now and then, it is time to revisit the question: does the obligation of proving one’s loyalty to the secular principles fall only on the shoulders of Indian Muslims? Also, it is time for the secular parties to reconsider their notions of ‘secular’ in a post-secular setting, and at the same time answer to the critics how forming an alliance with an evidently communal party in Maharashtra is any different than forming an alliance with AIMIM in Bihar.