The battle for Bihar has begun in right earnest with the Election Commission announcing the poll dates. This will be the first election after the dreaded disease COVID-19 had set in. It is also the first elections without Lalu Prasad Yadav of RJD canvassing physically. Polling would be held in three phases – on October 24, November 3 and November 7. The results would be out on November 10.
The 15-year rule of Nitish Kumar would be the central point of debate. Nitish who had spoiled his image by jumping out of the NDA in 2013, winning a landslide in the company of RJD and again jumping back on to the NDA bandwagon without any qualms. His reputation for personal integrity had taken a beating. The political reputation he was enjoying in early years of his rule has also been dwindling. The social justice that has been the slogan remained just that without any tangible benefits accruing to any group of people.
More losses than wins for BJP
BJP needs Nitish Kumar and his JD-U as much as the former needs the latter. Nitish Kumar had forced the BJP to agree for more number of seats to be contested by the JD-U. But sensing the fall in the chief minister’s popularity, the BJP has been scaling up its demand and now insisting on contesting for 100 seats each. The BJP which swept Bihar in 2014 Lok Sabha elections came a cropper in 2015 Assembly polls in which the JD-U, RJD and the Congress were in the grand alliance bagging 178 out of 243 seats. BJP had to be content with 59 seats. Others got six. After losing in Bihar, the BJP won Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Tripura but lost in Delhi, Jarkhand, Chchattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Kerala, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It had managed to split the Congress legislature party to fell Kumaraswamy (JD-S) government in Karnataka to make BJP veteran B.S. Yediyurappa chief minister again. Then it enticed Jyothiraditya Scindia, the Gwalior scion and the youth icon in the Congress, to shift his loyalties to the BJP and saw the fall of the Congress government headed by Kamal Nath. It tried to replicate the formula in Rajasthan by encouraging another young Congress leader, Sachin Pilot, to defect. Since Vasundhara Raje Scindia, former BJP chief minister of Rajasthan, did not support the move, the BJP had to beat a hasty retreat embarrassing the young Congress leader. Moreover, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot had given a stiff fight to save his fort.
Litmus test for Farm Bills
Winning Bihar elections is very important for the BJP. It would be a litmus test to know if the people in general, and farmers in particular, had approved of the Farm Bills passed by Parliament. The prime minister had already given a green signals for development projects in Bihar costing some Rs. 16,000 crore. Narendra Modi’s image appears to be intact as far as Bihar is concerned. But the impact of the economy in doldrums, the mismanagement of Covid crisis, the war of attrition with China with the PLA breathing down India’s neck and growing unemployment rate is visible. The way the question of migrant workers during the lockdown was tackled had left a bad image of the Central and State governments. The way the farm Bills were approved by parliament in a most undemocratic manner also painted the governments in a corner. President Ram Nath Kovid has signed on the Bills on Monday. The farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP are yet to give up their protests. Modi, on the other hands, has been exhorting his party cadres to convince the farmers of the enormous good that the farm Acts are going to do. Modi himself has been aggressively campaigning in favour of the Bills. The farmers suspect the motives of the government. They feel that the ground is being prepared to withdraw the Minimum Support Price (MSP) regime. They also feel that the agricultural sector would ultimately be handed over to the Ambanis and Adanis of the corporate world.
However, Bihar has been experiencing the provisions of Bills since 2006 when the government intervention in market yards was withdrawn. Modi government appears to be sincerely believing that the farm Bills would do a world of good to the farmers. Modi is confident that his party can win over the farmers if the Bills were explained properly. The BJP is already popular in urban areas and among the forward castes.
Has fatigue set in?
The ruling alliance has to contend with the fatigue factor. People have been fed up with the same chief minister for 15 years. The ‘Sushashan Babu’ as Nitish Kumar was known, has become a ‘Routine Babu’ having lost his luster. In the wake of Mandal movement which was unleashed by the then prime minister, V.P. Singh, as an answer to Lal Krishna Advani’s kamandal game (Ram Janmabhoomi Abhiyan), Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP had occupied the centre-stage. Nitish also came to represent the social justice principle over the years. While Akhilesh Yadav had taken reins from his father in UP, Tejashwi Yadav has taken over the RJD from his father who has been in jail as he was convicted in fodder case. Lalu and Mulayam have been out of power for quite some time. But the people of Bihar have been seeing Nitish’s face for fifteen long years. One can understand if they are longing for a change.
Blowing non-issues out of proportion
As there is nothing to show in the form of performance, BJP and JD-U have been trying to en cash non-issues like Sushant Singh Rajput’s suspected suicide. The young actor happened to be from Bihar. He was made famous by the Bollywood which is in Mumbai and Maharashtra. Nitish has made Sushant’s case a campaign theme for ‘Bihar asmita,’ a self-respect movement cleverly making it a Bihar vs Maharashtra issue. Nitish Kumar and his deputy Sushil Modi had gone far in their campaign. BJP has thrown in film star Kangana for effect. In the same manner, the behavior of the deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha, Harivansh, is also sought to be used for electoral purpose. Harivansh, who hails from Bihar and a JD-U leader, appeared undemocratic in the way he got the farm Bills passed in the Rajya Sabha. The Opposition leaders who criticized the deputy chairman have been branded anti-Bihar. The ruling alliance has also been trying to use the resignation letter sent by RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh to Lalu Prasad Yadav criticizing the way the party was being run. Modi and Nitish appear to believe that anything is fair in love and war.
BJP chief J.P. Nadda and Home Minister Amit Shah have been trying to convince JLP leader Chirag Paswan to climb down on his demand for more seats. They are also trying to bring about a rapproachment between Jitan Ram Manji, a dalit leader and a former chief minister, and the sulking Ram Vilas so that the dalit vote remains largely with the ruling alliance.
Upendra Kushwaha, an unpredictable leader
The Opposition alliance has its own problems. Upendra Kushwaha, leader of Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) had declared that he would not accept Tejashwi Pratap Yadav as a chief minister candidate. But the leader of the alliance, RJD had already announced Tejashwi’s name as the future chief minister. Tejashwi made it clear the other day to Shakti Sinh Gohil, the representative of the Congress high command looking after party’s affairs in Bihar, that Upendra Kushwaha is not trustworthy, he might jump the ship even after elections if the difference between the ruling alliance and the Opposition alliance is narrow. Kushwaha had announced that he would put up his candidates in all the 234 constituencies. If he did that or chose to go back to the NDA, it will be setback to the Opposition alliance. Upendra Kushwaha may not be able to win many seats if he went alone but he is capable of defeating rival candidates in a number of constituencies. There has been an agreement between the RJD, Congress and the Left parties with RJD contesting for 140 seats as leader of the alliance, leaving 70 to Congress and two dozen seats to CPI(ML), CPI(M) and CPI. Mukesh Sahni of Vikas sheel Insaan Party might get the rest of the seats. Gohil has not yet given up on Upendra Kushwaha. He told a media conference recently that unity among the Opposition parties is very important and the common goal should be to defeat the BJP. D. Raja of the CPI echoed the same sentiment.
Yaswant, Prashant Kishore
It is not known whom does Prashant Kishore, the psephologist-turned-activist support in the election. Whether he would contest the electons, if so, would he do it alone or join some coalition is not yet clear. Whom does former finance minister Yaswant Sinha who has been intensively campaigning in Bihar is also not yet known. Sinha is a know Modi baiter. Prashant is a green-horn as far as active politics is concerned. As a professional he worked for the BJP, the JD-U, the Congress and the YSRCP. His political preferences are not yet know. The limitations imposed by Carona virus would dictate terms to the political parties in the elections. The ruling alliance would have natural advantage by way of funds, machinery and institutions. How strong the apathy towards Nitish Kumar and how far the people of Bihar hold Nitish and Modi responsible for the problems of the labourers who had to trek the distance from Mumbai and Delhi to Bihar towns would have a bearing on the outcome of the results.