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X factor: 3 reasons why Lalu could decide the Bihar election

Sameer Chougaonkar | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 6:40 IST

Nearly halfway through the Bihar election, the NDA has toned down attacks on Lalu Prasad. No longer do they remind voters every chance they get that the RJD chief will bring back 'Jungle Raj'.

This is surprising given the BJP's guns were primarily trained at him. It did not target Nitish Kumar with the same zeal since that would inevitability have brought up the party's own record as part of his government.

So, what effected this change?

Lalu, the NDA has realised, is the biggest obstacle in its path to power, say political analysts. And going after him could backfire. Here's why:

1) Muslims are coming back to Lalu

Muslims are 16.9% of Bihar's population, as per the 2011 census, and make up over 20% of the population in at least 40 assembly segments, where they hold the key to victory.

These constituencies are spread across seven districts - Katihar (42.5% Muslim population), Purnia (36.7%), Araria (41.1%), Kishanganj (67.6%), Darbhanga (22.7%), Paschim Champaran (21.2%) and Sitamarhi (21.1%).

The Muslims loyally voted for Lalu ever since he took the political centre stage in the early 1990s until 2005.

Indeed, they were central, along with the Yadavs, to his formidable MY support base that won him three straight elections.

Lalu, along the Congress, won more than half the Muslim-dominated seats in 1990, 1995 and 2000 elections. In 2000, when he last won, Lalu got nearly 48% of the Muslim vote.

The community, however, grew disaffected with his rule and most deserted him in 2005. Ram Vilas Paswan decided to contest on his own, leading to a split in the Muslim vote. Lalu's share came down to 36%, while Paswan's LJP walked away with 15%.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, 64% of Muslim voters opted for Lalu; Nitish got 21%

As a result, the share of Lalu's Muslim-dominated seats was reduced to less than a third. More than half the seats went to the JD(U)-BJP combine, which went on to form the government.

In 2010, it got worse. Lalu garnered only 32% of the Muslim vote. Breaking up with the Congress had cost him dearly as the party took away 22%. This greatly contributed to the RJD ending up with a dismal tally of 22 seats.

Of late though, the Muslims have again reposed their faith in Lalu. In last year's parliamentary election, 64% of them voted for his party while the JD(U) had to contend with a meager 21% even after Nitish parted ways with the BJP.

The polling pattern of the first two phases of this election seems to have reinforced the sense that a majority of the Muslims will go with Lalu, much to the NDA's discomfort.

The opposition was banking on a significant chunk of the Muslim vote going to Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM. If that doesn't happen, and the combined Muslim vote of the RJD and the JD(U) remains intact, the Grand Alliance would take most of the 40-odd seats.

2) His Yadav support is mostly intact

Yadavs, the other pillar of Lalu's winning formula, form around 14% of the state's population.

They are spread across the state, with each of the 243 constituencies home to 20,000-25,000 Yadav voters. Some estimates make them a deciding factor in as many as 110 seats, particularly in Seemanchal, Kosi, Bhagalpur, Chapra, Vaishali and Siwan.

Surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies show the RJD has mustered, on an average, 70% of the Yadav vote in all elections since 1995. In 2000, the party got 80% of this vote, only to do better in 2005 with 83%.

The Modi wave got the BJP 18% Yadav vote in 2014, but Lalu still got nearly 64% of their vote

In 2010, however, it came down to 69%. And in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, a strong Modi wave ensured 18% of the Yadavs voted for the BJP. Lalu's loss, compared to 2010, though was marginal: he held on to nearly 64% of the vote.

This election, Lalu has gone out of his way to woo this core constituency. He has given 48 tickets from his quota of 101 to Yadavs. Calling for Mandal II and playing up RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat's rant against reservations has further strengthened his cause.

3) Polling history is on his side

Lalu's charisma may have waned over the years, but election data of a quarter century suggests his rivals will write him off at their own peril.

In the 13 elections in Bihar since 1990, the RJD was the single largest party on 10 occasions in terms of vote share. The exceptions were the Lok Sabha polls in 2009 and 2014 and the state election in 2010.

While its best performance came in the 1991 assembly election, taking 41% of the vote, the party and its partners have consistently garnered votes in the 25-33% range.

In the most recent election in 2014, Lalu, along with the Congress, got 29% of the vote, just one per cent less than the BJP. In Muslim and Yadav dominated eastern parts of the state, the alliance, in fact, secured more votes than the NDA.

It is this fear of Muslim and Yadav consolidation in favour of the RJD that has the BJP worried.

It's only hope to counter this social engineering is to win over other backward classes. Whether the party can manage that is anybody's guess.

First published: 23 October 2015, 9:57 IST