29 October, 2020

Hello Mic Check

There are a few contenders to the throne. And many pretenders. But can they dislodge the king of 15 years? All that's to know about the Bihar elections.

JD(U) campaign vehicles kitted out with giant screen TVs for virtual rallies
Photograph by PTI
Hello Mic Check

“Is baar Tejashwi tay hai, is baar Tejashwi tay.”

In the sunburnt and dusty heartland of Bihar, the foot-tapping campaign song of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) plays on a loop, telling anyone caring to listen that the time has for come for Tejashwi Prasad Yadav to take charge of the state. Tejashwi, the chief ministerial candidate of the RJD-Congress alliance, is leading the Opposition’s charge against the mighty and combined forces of the ruling JD(U) and BJP. But that is a just a minor detail in the complex setting of election-bound Bihar, just one piece of the jigsaw that make up the political smorgasbord.

But this is an election like nothing Bihar has ever seen and not just because of the dark clouds of the Covid pandemic hanging over the democratic exercise. The last time the state voted to elect a new assembly, the talismanic Laloo Prasad was out on bail, the JD(U), RJD and Congress were together, Dalit icon Ram Vilas Paswan was alive and Sushant Singh Rajput was not a poll issue. Five years is a very long time in politics. And 15 years—yes, that is how long chief minister Nitish Kumar has held on to his throne—is like a lifetime.

ALSO READ: No Anti-Incumbency For Mr Clean

That’s perhaps the reason, in the last few traditional bastions left of the RJD, supporters are rooting for the 30-year-old leader, hoping he will accomplish the mission to evict Nitish Kumar from 1, Aney Marg, and reclaim the chief minister’s bungalow where he spent his formative years when either Laloo or his wife Rabri Devi was chief minister. Long before his father anointed Tejashwi as the heir-apparent, Tejashwi had lived in the colonial-era mansion located in Patna’s very own Lutyens’ zone—now occupied by Nitish—bet­ween 1990 and 2005. Even as his parents took turns to rule Bihar, he spent more time with his willow on its sprawling lawns than in his study. Cricketing skills honed on the campus of this very bungalow later earned him a place in the Jharkhand Ranji team and also in the Delhi Daredevils squad of the Indian Premier League.  

RJD campaign by contrast.

Photograph by Sonu Kishan

But when Laloo—his political fate then inextricably linked to the prolonged trials in the fodder scam—­realised that his son had better prospects in politics than serving drinks as the 12th man during IPL matches, he called Tejashwi back, asking him to pad up for an altogether different game: politics. He was barely 20 then.

ALSO READ: A Liberator Versus A Turncoat

Ten years on, Tejashwi is leading the Mahagathbandhan—a coalition of RJD, Congress and the Left Front, including CPI-ML—in a bid to deny Nitish a fourth consecutive term in the three-phase polls starting October 28. The Yadav scion can be the youngest-ever CM if he stages a coup, but is up against a battle-scarred politician cut out of the same cloth as Laloo (see ‘A Tale of Two Leaders’). Nitish’s JD(U) has remained unbeaten in 15 years; a combination of political guile and statesmanship that has seen him ally with the RJD-Congress to win the last elections, only to dump them and return to the BJP-led NDA. This time, the NDA also has Mahadalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi and the extremely backward castes (EBC) leader Mukesh Sahani to expand its base.

Above all, Nitish remains a leader with a clean image, proven administrative acumen and a deep understanding of the ground realities in the caste-ridden state politics, all of which have ­insulated him from anti-incumbency in the past three elections. Will it be any different this time?

ALSO READ: ‘I Hope And Wish And Pray Bihar Doesn’t Throw Up A Khichdi Sarkar’

The Opposition thinks so, pointing out that Nitish’s current term—rocked by an NGO scam and Muzaffarpur shelter home scandal, followed by alleged mishandling of the Covid and migrant situation during the lockdown—is far from unblemished. If that is not enough, they expect “the enemy within” the NDA camp to get the better of him. Little surprise, knives are being sharpened and chinks in his armour put under a microscope by opponents in ­anticipation of an elusive victory.

Leading the pack of the claimants and pretenders to Nitish’s throne is, of course, Tejashwi, but there are a handful of others—from veterans such as Upendra Kushwaha and Pappu Yadav to a rookie like Pushpam Priya Choudhary—who are all awaiting their turn to play their bit in the post-poll scenario, if something like February 2005 happens, when a fractured verdict had plunged Bihar into political uncertainty.

The most conspicuous among the lot is Lok Janshakti Party chief Chirag Paswan, who has given a twist to the poll script with his curious agenda (see ‘Bold gamble by lamplight’). He walked out of the NDA recently citing ideological differences with Nitish, but remains besotted with Narendra Modi’s BJP, Nitish’s long-standing ally. On one hand, he has fielded LJP candidates against JD(U); on the other, he talks about the formation of a BJP-LJP government after the polls “to ­implement the development model of Modi in Bihar”. Even to the ­uninitiated, all this smells like a larger plot being stewed behind the curtains.

ALSO READ: Bold Gamble By Lamplight

And adding more spices to the simmering poll pot is the presence of a few LJP candidates who were holding aloft the saffron flags until recently. One of them, Rajendra Singh, an RSS leader from Bih­ar-Jharkhand, was even projected as the BJP’s possible CM candidate in the 2015 polls.

Is Chirag’s decision a well-thought-out bid to weaken Nitish’s hold in Bihar at the BJP’s behest or just an ambitious plan to revive his party? The jury is still out on him, but JD(U) leaders are understandably upset—one of them even compares Paswan Junior to the legendary poet Kalidasa for his “folly to cut the very branch of the tree that he is perched on”.  Senior BJP leaders such as Sushil Kumar Modi have been at pains to reassure Nitish that there is no threat to his position regardless of which party in the alliance wins more seats. Bhupender Yadav, BJP national general secretary and party in-charge for Bihar polls, says it is a lie and purely concocted and imaginary speculation about any BJP-LJP deal. “Our alliance is with JD(U) and we are contesting elections with JD(U),” he tells Outlook.

United Battle

Nitish Kumar (right) with ally BJP’s Sushil Modi at a poll rally.

Photograph by Sonu Kishan

BJP state president Sanjay Jaiswal has even threatened to lodge an FIR against any party (read LJP) if it uses the prime minister’s photographs in their campaign. Besides, the party has expelled all those contesting against the NDA. Sanjay Mayukh, BJP national media co-in-charge, says the Bihar elections are being fought on the development plank and the Nitish-­Sushil Modi duo will form the ­government again. “There is no competition. The Mahagathbandhan has died in its infancy,” he says.

ALSO READ: A Tale Of Two Leaders

Nonetheless, the Chirag factor appears to have further deepened the mistrust between the JD(U) and the BJP, comparable only to the trust deficit that existed in 2010, when Nitish cancelled a dinner for senior BJP leaders due to the presence of Modi, then Gujarat CM, during the party’s national executive in Patna.

Three years later, Nitish went on to break ranks with the BJP over Modi’s elevation as NDA’s prime ministerial candidate, and won the 2015 assembly polls as the leader of a ‘secular’ alliance. He returned to NDA in 2017, only to realise that equations within the alliance had changed and his previous position ceased to exist.

During the Modi-Amit Shah era, Nitish has doubtless ceded much ground to the BJP. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the JD(U) and the BJP contested 17 seats each and in this election also, they have divided the seats almost equally. But that was not always the case. Since the 2005 assembly elections, JD(U) had always played the big brother. In 2005, JD(U) and the BJP had contested 138 and 103 seats respectively, while in the next polls held in November the same year, their number stood at 139 and 102 respectively. In 2010, JD(U) contested 141 seats, while the BJP got the remaining 102. Nitish even managed to secure 25 out of the 40 seats in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

Brothers in arms

Tejashwi seeks the blessings of his brother Tej Pratap.

Photograph by PTI

Back in the Vajpayee-Advani era, Nitish was made the chief minister of an NDA regime that lasted barely seven days in 2000, though the BJP had more seats (67) than Nitish’s erstwhile Samata Party (34). The BJP actually needed somebody like Nitish, an OBC leader with a clean image, to oust Laloo at the time. He was, therefore, projec­ted as the CM candidate of the NDA ahead of the November 2005 elections, paving the way for their alliance to get a majority for the first time.

All that, however, began to change with Modi storming to power at the Centre in 2014 and repeating his performance five years later. Last year, Nitish received another setback when only one ministerial berth was offered to his party after the Lok Sabha polls even though his party had 16 MPs. A miffed Nitish chose not to join the government and the BJP did not even try to make him rethink.   

There have been conjectures since then that BJP has become aspirational enough to push Nitish to the sidelines after playing second fiddle in the state for long. It is this backdrop that has prompted political commentators now to believe there is more to Chirag’s move than what meets the eye. There are apprehensions in JD(U) that though LJP may not win many seats, its presence will harm the prospects of their candidates. With so many parties in the fray, even a few hundred votes can spoil their chances.

Equally worrying for them is the fact that the BJP has not made any statement yet, stating categorically that LJP has ceased to be part of the NDA at the national level as well, and that Chirag would not be made a cabinet minister in place of his father Ram Vilas Paswan, who passed away recently. Despite repeated praise by Modi of Nitish’s abilities in the past few weeks, political commentators do not rule out the possibility that Chirag may well have been fielded as a proxy for the BJP.

But Nitish may have already initiated counter-measures. The recent ­elevation of Ashok Choudhary, a former state Congress chief, as the working president of JD(U) is being seen as his smart countermove. “If Nitish will require the support of the Congress and the RJD after the polls, Sonia Gandhi may easily persuade Laloo to support him to keep the BJP out of power.  He is, after all, a lesser evil for them,” says political analyst N.K. Choudhary. “Even though Tejashwi is the chief ministerial candidate of the Mahagathbandhan, should the need arise, she might request Laloo to support Nitish, saying Tejashwi is still young and will get many chances in the future.” He says the BJP, therefore, cannot afford to underestimate a master political strategist like Nitish if it is really trying to upstage him by firing from Chirag’s shoulders. ­“Remember what had happened in the last election,” Choudhary says.

On his part, Nitish appears to be as stoic as ever. “Serving people is my dharma,” he says. “And I will continue to serve Bihar if I get the people’s mandate again.” He has already announced his development plans called ‘Saat Nishchay Part 2’ (seven resolves) for his next tenure. From 50 per cent reservation for women in panchayat polls and speedy trials to put ‘bahubalis’ behind bars, to double-digit growth and multiple steps to ensure inclusive development, his ­achievements clearly outnumber his lapses. And that remains, to this date, his biggest strength.

The Pluralist

Pushpam Priya Chaudhary is a new entrant to the poll ring.

Photograph by PTI

But he also knows that performance alone is not enough in a state where factors like caste arithmetic and other permutations and combinations still matter. He, therefore, does not forget to remind people how he had changed Bihar’s fortunes despite inheriting a bleak state after the era of Laloo’s ‘jungle raj’. He has also taken care to give adequate representation to all sections, including Muslims, in ticket distribution this time. Apart from cementing his traditional EBC and OBC base, he has sought to make a dent into Lalu’s Muslim-Yadav vote-bank by highlighting their neglect by the RJD president for his personal gains. Above all, he has consolidated his women vote-bank with steps like prohibition, which have given him an edge over his rivals in all elections since 2010.

Nitish remains a leader with a clean image and a deep understanding of the ground realities in the caste-ridden state.

“Though caste still remains the biggest factor, Nitish has given wings to the dreams of women regardless of their caste and religion,” says social scientist Gyandeo Mani Tripathi. “They are his biggest vote-bank. Remember, the girls who got bicycles from Nitish in his first tenure are all new voters now. They would not vote for anyone else. It was a long-term political investment that will pay off in election after election. No other politician has been able to do it in Bihar.”

The RJD, however, believes that recent factors like rising unemployment, poor handling of the COVID-19 situation and shabby treatment of lakhs of migrant workers during the lockdown have robbed the Nitish government of its sheen. Tejashwi thinks the stage is set for the RJD-led government to take over. “We are in the electoral battle to pursue development-oriented politics and we are fighting it strongly on issues of public interest,” says Tejashwi. “We are committed to making a bid to address burning issues such as unemployment and migration faced by Bihar over the past 15 years.”  

Tejashwi has announced that his alliance, if voted to power, its first cabinet decision will be to generate 10 lakh jobs. With unemployment shooting up to 46 per cent in Bihar and economic slowdown all over, jobs have become even more scarce in Bihar. Thousands of migrants, who returned home during the lockdown, have gone back to their places of work in other states for want of better opportunities at home.

Tejashwi is obviously trying his best and has even shunned the baggage of his past by publicly apologising for any lapses of the 15-year RJD tenure. Even as Nitish continues to hark back to the ‘jungle raj’ days, Tejashwi wants to start with a clean slate.

Whether Bihar opts for a fresh face or votes for the tried and tested veteran once more remains the big question. Or is Bihar headed for a hung assembly that will throw open all possibilities like early 2005 when the LJP had sought to play the kingmaker?

Sometimes, it is best to be a ­fence-sitter and watch the drama unfold from afar.  


Caste In Stone

  • The upper castes, comprising Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars and Kayashthas, are usually considered to be BJP supporters . But the Congress too has retained some of its voters from these castes. Nitish Kumar has also wooed a sizeable chunk with his development-­centric politics in the past 15 years.
  • The Mahadalits, as Dalits are called in the state now, coomprise 22 scheduled castes. A majority have voted for the JD(U) in the last few assembly polls due to welfare schemes launched by Nitish Kumar. With Mushhar leader Jitan Ram Manjhi’s return to NDA, its vote-bank has further consolidated. However, the late Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP, now led by Chirag, will get the bulk of Dusadh (Paswan) votes as usual. The sympathy wave after Paswan’s demise might benefit it too. On the other hand, with RJD’s alliance with a united Left front, the Mahagathbandhan will also get a fair share of the votes from underprivileged sections this time.
  • Muslim votes have split among RJD, JD(U) and the Congress in the past few elections. A majority, ­however, might go to the Mahagath­bandhan this time, as Nitish’s decision to mend fences with Narendra Modi after the last assembly elections appears to have not gone down well with voters from the minority community.
  • The real fight is still for OBC and EBC votes. These communities are divided into more than 125 castes. While Laloo Prasad and Nitish may retain the support of Yadavs and Kurmis respectively, NDA hopes to get the votes of Koeris (Kushwahas) and Vaishyas, though Koeri leader and former Union minister Upendra Kushwaha has formed a third front with the likes of Mayawati of BSP and Asauddin Owaisi of AIMIM for the polls.
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