Recent political developments in Bihar point to the impending return of mass politics that has all but gone into hibernation following the COVID-19 outbreak. Assembly elections are due in the state later this year and the indications, thus far, are that the Election Commission is likely to stay with the schedule (October/November) despite the pandemic. It is only apt that Bihar, where politics is the lifeblood of public life, will kickstart an election season that will witness polls in large, electorally significant states including West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the succeeding months.
Bihar will be voting in the backdrop of the economic distress following COVID-19 and the flaring of tensions on the India-China border. These issues provide an opportunity for the Opposition to regroup and assert itself against the ruling BJP in the Hindi heartland. However, the signals from Bihar are hardly reassuring for the Opposition. The RJD, the main pole of non-BJP politics in the state, has not ceased being in the throes of a severe churn and now faces the threat of an implosion — five of the party’s eight MLCs have recently joined the ruling Janata Dal (United). Senior leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh has also threatened to resign following reports of a rival meeting party chief Tejashwi Yadav ahead of joining the RJD. These developments bring Tejashwi Yadav’s leadership within the RJD itself under a cloud and strengthen the voices within the Opposition alliance Jitan Ram Manjhi, Upendra Kushwaha among others against projecting him as its chief ministerial candidate. The fact is that with Lalu Prasad ailing, Tejashwi Yadav has seemed ill-equipped to mount a challenge to Nitish Kumar, who, by all accounts, may be facing voter fatigue after a lacklustre third consecutive term in office. On paper, the Opposition in Bihar has a formidable social alliance that can compete with the BJP-JD(U)-LJP combine, but the absence of a charismatic figure like Lalu Prasad may limit its potential in mobilising voters.
As the RJD grapples with leadership issues, the BJP is pressing ahead with poll preparations. Home Minister Amit Shah’s digital Jan Samvad rally in early June was, by all means, the launch of the BJP election campaign and an experiment in mobilisation at a time when the norms of social distancing bar large physical gatherings. This cost-effective exercise in political communication may have set the tone for a campaign that makes heavy use of social media platforms and tools and seeks to overcome the limits on physical travel and meetings imposed by a pandemic that is yet to slow down.