It was the spring of 2000. The NDA government at the centre, with Sharad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar as ministers, had failed to reach an understanding on the seat sharing in the elections to the Bihar assembly. A divided NDA went to the polls in the then undivided Bihar. The Paswan and Nitish factions polled 6.47 percent and 8.65 percent of the votes respectively. The BJP in the then united house of Bihar won 67 seats polling 14.64 percent of votes. The JD(U) and the Samata Party (SAP) won 21 and 34 seats respectively.
With a view to promoting a more acceptable face, the BJP’s central leadership pushed for Nitish Kumar as CM, and thus began Nitish Kumar’s first stint as CM that barely lasted a week as he could not muster the numbers. However, that was not just the beginning of Nitish’s rise in Bihar, but also the beginning of what would be a decade-long stagnation for the BJP in Bihar.
In fact, the BJP’s stagnation in Bihar was scripted in 1996 itself, when it first allied with the Samata Party. While the vote shares of the two parties in 1995 were in the ratio 2:1, the seat-sharing arrangement for the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, in spite of the rising dominance of the BJP, was skewed in favour of the SAP 32:22. That left most of South Bihar (Jharkhand) for the BJP, while giving the SAP a slight edge in North Bihar.
With Sharad Yadav joining the JD(U) it became that much more dominant, leaving the BJP, stuck in a narrow range of 13 percent to 17 percent in Bihar. The decline of the LJP, between Feb and Oct 2005, marked the pinnacle of JD(U)’s dominance in state politics and a prolonged secondary role for the BJP.
Historically, the BJP has worked hard in various states to establish its primacy, however the process has taken decades. It started off in Karnataka, with the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, polling close to 30 percent votes. However, it was not until 2008 that the party formed its own government in the state. The absence of a regional leader, who would match the stature of the late R.K Hegde and Deve Gowda, allowed the party the opportunity to only emerge as the prime opposition in the 1994 assembly election that gave it a mere 16.7 percent of the vote.
The story of alliances, first with Hegde’s Lok Shakti and then with the Kumaraswamy faction of the Janata Dal, became a jinx that the BJP overcame only in 2008, when it formed a government on its own strength. The party consistently increased its vote share in Assam from 10 percent to 30 percent between 1991 and 1999, yet it only now holds the promise of forming a government on its own in the state.
The question now is: can the BJP break the jinx in Bihar? In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections the BJP led in 121 of the 243 assembly segments and that does hold promise for the party. It has been aggressive enough to not repeat its mistakes of the 1990s, when it bent over backwards to accommodate Nitish Kumar, George Fernandes, RK Hegde and JH Patel, delaying the BJP’s ascent. Now the BJP has a strategy of limiting its allies, unlike in Karnataka 1999 and Bihar in 2000, when the party left close to half the seats for its allies in these states.
Now not only has the BJP a larger share of the seats, alliance partners seats have been settled well in advance, and the party also has a focussed campaign around the Prime Minister, choosing not to project a regional leader. The issue therefore boils down to its candidate list and campaign strategy. Even if the BJP manages to emerge as the single largest party in the contest, it would have accelerated its growth in Bihar far better than it has done in Assam, Karnataka or for that matter Orissa. Whether the BJP forms the government or not, it would have still made a point.