The compelling logic of a Grand Alliance in UP

There’s nothing like the word Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) to make even the most boosterish Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter sweat a little. And it’s not just because of what happened in Bihar in 2015, when an alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and Indian National Congress (INC) inflicted a defeat on the BJP. Ever since 1977, dominant parties – the INC until the 1980s, the BJP now – have been vulnerable to a united opposition challenge. Which is why Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav have both urged the INC to engineer a national-level grand alliance to break the BJP’s current ascendance.

Uttar Pradesh (UP) is of course the lynchpin of the BJP’s national dominance, having contributed 71 of its 282 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. That is why its recent state election victory was such good news for the party, since it places the BJP on a strong footing for the 2019 election, only two years away now.

The best way to stop the BJP juggernaut, at this point, seems to be a Mahagathbandhan in UP. After the Emergency, an opposition alliance forced the INC’s Lok Sabha seats in UP down from 73 (of 85) in 1971 to exactly zero in 1977. Its state assembly tally fell from 215 in 1974 to 47 in 1977. Little more than a decade later, another grand alliance knocked the INC down from 83 Lok Sabha seats in 1984 to 15 in 1989. In the state assembly, the INC dropped from 269 seats in 1985 to 94 in 1989. Grand alliances in UP have proved effective in countering dominant political parties.

Like the previous instances, a UP grand alliance might not be more than a stopgap. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) have a history of animosity that won’t be easy to overcome, though the INC could play mediator between former rivals as it did in Bihar.

So what impact might a Mahagathbandhan have had on the just completed state elections? Here’s what the new UP state assembly looks like:

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A simple addition exercise shows that the BJP and its allies exceeded the combined vote share of the SP, BSP and INC in 115 state assembly seats. If we include the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), this number drops to 101.

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What about the Lok Sabha? The BJP and its allies won more votes than a theoretical Mahagathbandhan in only 25 seats (24 if you include the RLD), compared with its 2014 tally of 73. The BJP would still have won the national election, but its Lok Sabha tally would have been down to (a still impressive) 236.

There are obvious caveats: it’s not clear that parties’s vote banks will seamlessly transfer to grand alliance partners. Some portion of BSP and SP voters who dislike the other party could instead vote for a third party, which could even be the BJP. Or party workers could be unenthusiastic for a candidate in their constituency from a different party. For instance, INC candidates on average won fewer votes in the 2017 UP election than did SP candidates, which political scientist Gilles Verniers sees as evidence that “SP supporters did not transfer their votes to Congress supporters to the same extent that Congress supporters did”.

On the other hand, a grand alliance that looks like a potential winner could gain votes purely on momentum. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’ 2014 National Election Study found strong evidence for such a bandwagon effect: 43% of voters said that they chose the party they thought was leading the race.

Either way, the compelling logic of a grand alliance in UP suggests that the parties the BJP defeated in 2017 will put in a serious effort to get one going. Whether it happens or not is the 80-seat question.

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Still no sign of “Jungle Raj” in Bihar

The Feb 5 daytime killing by AK-47 wielding gunmen of Lok Janshakti Party leader Brijnath Singh, himself a murder accused, has revived allegations that Bihar is witnessing a return to “Jungle Raj”, the period of lawlessness that occurred under former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has attempted to play up voters’ fears of that period ever since Chief Minister Nitish Kumar entered into an alliance with Lalu in 2014; Prime Minister Narendra Modi pitched Bihar’s 2015 assembly election as a choice between “Vikas Raj” and “Jungle Raj”. (In Does Bihar’s kidnapping industry embody “Jungle Raj”? this blog showed that Modi’s claims regarding kidnappings in Bihar were off the mark.)

The latest version of the “Jungle Raj” charge builds in a Jan 3 CNN-IBN news report according to which Bihar had witnessed 578 murders over the previous two months. Although this number is in line with Bihar’s five-year average (as I pointed out at the time), it turns out that the actual number of murders in November and December 2015 was a considerably lower 442. But these details haven’t stopped BJP-leaning social media from criticising the state government for its supposed failures on the law-and-order front.

A proper test of whether Lalu’s return to power in early November 2015 has contributed to a spike requires us to compare murders reported in November and December 2015 with the equivalent period in previous years. This is partly required because there is a seasonal pattern evident, with more murders committed in the summer than in the winter (one possible explanation here).

And this is what we find:

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Not only is the number of murders reported in Bihar in November-December 2015 at a six-year low, but the murder rate when the BJP was in government (in 2010-12) was higher.

Perhaps Lalu Yadav should level the charge of “Jungle Raj” at the BJP instead.

Does Bihar’s kidnapping industry embody “Jungle Raj”?

In a fiery election speech in Munger, Bihar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that the coming state election was a choice between “Jungle Raj” and “Vikas Raj”, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led alliance representing the latter.

Modi cited widespread kidnappings in Bihar as an indicator of how lawless the state has been under Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) (JD[U]). Let’s leave aside the obvious objection that the BJP bears some responsibility for this, having run Bihar in coalition with the JD(U) for the past decade. In a heated election campaign, the BJP needs to differentiate itself from Nitish and his newfound ally, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad Yadav.

The problem for Modi is that two BJP-run states in the neighbourhood have higher rates of kidnapping, according to data provided in Table 1.6 of the 2014 Crime in India report (released earlier this year by the National Crime Records Bureau):

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As you can see, Bihar sits somewhere in the middle while Madhya Pradesh, ruled for 12 years by the BJP, has a kidnapping rate 61% higher than Bihar’s.

What about the trend line; does it support the charge of “jungle raj”? It certainly seems that Bihar’s kidnapping rate has jumped between 2007 (2.7 per lakh population) and 2014 (6.4 per lakh population). But that’s not the whole story: India’s overall kidnapping rate has actually risen a bit faster in the same period, and Bihar’s share of national kidnappings has in fact dropped from 9.2% (2007) to 8.5% (2014). This may be little consolation for the 3,940 additional Biharis who were kidnapped in 2014 versus 2007, but the chart below is illustrative.

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What’s not clear is if there has in fact been a national upsurge in kidnappings or whether there are technical or procedural reasons that have raised the numbers. But what is clear is that, while Bihar certainly has law-and-order issues, the state’s performance in this particular area has been only slightly worse than the national average.

The charge of “Jungle Raj”, at least so far as kidnappings go, isn’t supported by the data.

Update on Oct 17

The Wire carried this piece: