BJP’s Road to Reform: Bihar Matters

 By Sunita Kambhampati

Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar calling on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India on March 26, 2015. Source: Press Information Bureau.

Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar calling on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India on March 26, 2015. Source: Press Information Bureau.

Since winning the Lok Sabha elections last year, the ruling BJP has set its sights on winning state elections. Controlling state governments is critical for carrying out legislative reforms, as it will allow the party to strengthen its position in India’s upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha, as well as quicken the approval of Constitutional amendments such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Constitutional amendments require the concurrence of a majority of state governments. Thus, the next three years are crucial for the BJP, as it looks to make inroads in states in which the party does not have traditional strongholds.

The BJP has made good headway in recent months with election success in states like Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, and Jammu and Kashmir. The party suffered a setback in the Delhi election earlier this year. However, the party is already looking ahead to the more important election in Bihar in November. Bihar is the third most populous state in India with over 100 million people and has sixteen seats in the Rajya Sabha- about six percent of the total. The BJP currently holds four of these seats.

Between now and the end of 2016, five states- Bihar, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Puducherry- must hold elections. As seen in the table below, the BJP currently does not hold any seats in the state assemblies of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, or Puducherry. Bihar and Assam, however, are both states in which the BJP has some representation, and are states in which the party is expected to push for further expansion.

Upcoming Indian State Elections. Source: Compiled by CSIS Wadhwani Chair.

The BJP’s crushing defeat at the hands of the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in the Delhi elections led some to wonder whether it was a sign of Modi’s decline in voter favor. However, the party’s loss in Delhi was largely due to a consolidation of non-BJP votes behind the AAP. The BJP’s vote share in 2015 was nearly the same as in late 2013 when it nearly won a majority of seats. Bihar is expected to be a three-party contest, with BJP, Janata Dal United [JD (U)], and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) all expected to pull a substantial number of votes. The BJP currently holds 87 out of the 243 seats in Bihar’s state assembly and won 22 of the state’s 40 Lok Sabha seats last year.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar from the JD (U) is credited with bringing economic development, law, and improved governance to a state long marred by corruption and underdevelopment. While he stepped down from his post as chief minister after the party was drubbed in last year’s Lok Sabha election, he returned to power in a less democratic way — essentially forcing fellow JD (U) member, Jiten Ram Manjhi, to resign as chief minister, in February 2015.

The JD (U) had earlier been a strong alliance partner to the BJP, but split just ahead of last year’s national election. Many believe that this split came as a result of Kumar fearing that he would lose his large Muslim vote bank by aligning with Prime Minister Modi. Despite the methods Kumar utilized to regain the chief minister position, he recently won a trust vote 140-0 (the minimum number of votes required being 117). This decisive win should be a signal that Kumar does hold the approval and support of the current state assembly. More recently the JD (U) and RJD have started to work together. While these parties have historically been political rivals, they are working together to limit the BJP’s encroachment in the state.

Needless to say, the electoral climate going into the Bihar state assembly elections is a tense one. Kumar will surely do whatever is within his power to prove to voters and his party that he deserves to continue on as chief minister, but the BJP has its eyes set on a larger, more national goal: controlling more state governments and moving towards a majority in the Rajya Sabha. The next step in achieving this goal is winning in Bihar.

Ms. Sunita Kambhampati is a researcher with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.


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