Battle for Bihar: each phase features strategically clubbed seats
- The Election Commission has announced that the Bihar assembly polls will take place in five phases
- Polls will be held on 12, 16, and 28 October, and 1 and 5 November
- Counting will be held on 8 November
- Paramilitary forces will be deployed at every polling booth
- EVMs will feature candidates\' photos for the first time
- Incidentally, the phases have been divided in such a way that each phase will suit a particular alliance
- For example, Phase 4, with a predominance of upper castes, will probably suit the NDA
- For the BJP, this is a very important election
- After its huge defeat to AAP in Delhi, this is its chance to see if Modi magic still works
- The BJP also needs gains in the Rajya Sabha, and doing well in Bihar is key to that
The dates for the battle to trump all battles have been announced. The Election Commission on 9 September announced that the polls to the Bihar Assembly will be held over five phases.
Polling will take place on 12, 16 and 28 October, and 1 and 5 November, while counting will take place on 8 November.
While most political parties welcomed the announcement, some eyebrows were raised too. JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav expressed displeasure at the duration the polls would last, saying five phases were just too many.
However, the number of phases is not surprising, since elections in the past have also been multi-phased. Assembly polls in 2010 were held in six phases, while those in October 2005 were held in four. The elections in February 2005, which eventually led to a hung verdict, were held in three phases.
The key takeaways from Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi's announcements included:
- Phase 1 will see polling in 49 assembly constituencies across 10 districts.
- Phase 2 will see polling for 32 seats across six districts.
- Phase 3 will see polling for 50 seats across six districts.
- Phase 4 will see polling for 55 seats across seven districts.
- Phase 5 will see polling for 57 seats across nine districts.
- All polling booths will be manned by paramilitary forces, not local police.
- Electronic Voting Machines will also feature photographs of candidates.
The period of the elections will be punctuated by several festivals, including Durga Ashtami and Maha Navami on 21 October, Dussehra on 22 October, Muharram on 24 October and Valmiki Jayanti on 27 October. The counting will soon be followed by Diwali on 10 November and Chhath Pooja from 15-18 November.
Migrant Biharis working in various parts of the country return to their home state during this festive season. However, the period from Dussehra to Chhath extends for nearly an entire month, and working-class Biharis return only for the Diwali-Chhath period, which falls after the actual dates of polling. So, the possibility of non-resident Biharis participating in these polls doesn't seem too bright.
A look at the districts clubbed in various phases reveals interesting patterns. Phase 1 districts include Samastipur, Begusarai, Khagaria, Bhagalpur, Banka, Munger, Lakhisarai, Sheikhpura, Nawada and Jamui.
Dr Ajay Kumar Singh, political scientist at the Jamia Hamdard University, explains that the demographic profile of this region includes OBCs and Muslims, which could lead to quite a contest here between NDA and the 'grand alliance'.
The districts in Phase 2 and 3 together constitute the region known as south-central Bihar. These include Bhabua, Rohtas, Arwal, Jahanabad, Aurangabad, Gaya, Saran, Vaishali, Nalanda, Patna, Bhojpur and Buxar.
Polls will be held on 12, 16 & 28 October, and 1 & 5 November. Counting will be held on 8 November
Singh says this region sees a majority of Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and Mahadalits. The grand alliance might have a slight edge here, according to him, because of the support for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's among these groups.
The NDA also claims to have an advantage here because of the presence of former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit, in its ranks.
The Phase 4 districts of West Champaran, East Champaran, Sheohar, Sitamarhi, Muzaffarpur, Gopalganj and Siwan are upper-caste dominated, according to Singh. These, too, could see a strong fight between the two alliances because of the upper castes' attraction for the Congress as well as the RSS-BJP.
Phase 5 districts include Madhubani, Supaul, Araria, Kishanganj, Purnia, Katihar, Madhepura, Saharsa and Darbhanga. Singh says this region comprises two of the numerically strongest voter groups in the state - Yadavs and Muslims.
Popularly known as the M-Y combination, this was RJD's dedicated vote bank until Nitish established his own presence among the Muslims. As things stand now, the race for the Muslim vote has seen the Nationalist Congress Party, the Samajwadi Party and the Left parties become another set of claimants.
As far as Yadavs are concerned, strongman MP Pappu Yadav's breaking away from RJD and cosying up to the NDA has made the latter hopeful of splitting the votebank. Singh says both these voter groups can also be swung and, that will make this region throw up some of the most exciting contests in the state.
State election, national significance
Lalu Prasad Yadav wasn't off the mark in his assessment that these elections will have resonance at the national level.
Multiple public rallies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi even before the announcement of poll dates have already proved how important these polls are for the BJP.
Riding a wave of electoral successes under Modi, the party suffered a major loss of face when it got swept by the Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi assembly elections in February. Bihar is a chance for the BJP to show that the Modi magic is still alive.
In addition, the most convenient way out of the logjam that the BJP is facing in the Parliament is to increase its tally in the Rajya Sabha, for which it is important for it to register a stellar performance in all the upcoming assembly polls. Beginning with Bihar, these include Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, West Bengal and Assam in 2016, and Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh in 2017.
If one looks at the numerically significant states out of these, as things stand, the BJP has a presence only in Assam, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, apart from being in power in Goa and Gujarat. Bihar is the BJP's first coveted stop in this series.
Timing is everything
Another important announcement preceded the declaration of the poll dates. The Central government announced a 6% hike in the Dearness Allowance of its employees just a few hours before the Election Commission's press conference.
While this may technically not be a violation of the Model Code of Conduct that was set in motion with the announcement of the poll dates, opposition parties have protested against it. JD(U) spokesperson and general secretary KC Tyagi said the announcement was welcome, but the timing was indeed questionable. He called it the violation of a 'moral' code of conduct.
However, the JD(U) chose to play the same card. Close on the heels of the Central government's announcement, the Bihar government also announced hike in the DA of its employees. Tyagi's defence was that this was necessitated by the Central government's action.
Bihar Congress chief Ashok Choudhary said given that reports were coming in since the previous day that the dates were about to be announced, the Central government shouldn't have announced the DA hike. He said the EC must take suo motu cognisance of the matter.