For the last nine months, Bihar has lurched from one disaster to another — from a pandemic to lockdown-induced reverse migration, from economic distress to floods. Which is why in a state whose people love their politics, a tightly-fought election lifts the spirits. Which is also why large crowds at rallies, in defiance of Covid-19 protocols, should come as no surprise. Electoral politics in Bihar provides a much-needed dose of oxygen to a state on a ventilator. And yet, as the political battle lines are drawn, the big question remains — kaun banega mukhya mantri? (who will become chief minister?)
On the face of it, this election should have been a done deal. In the 2019 general elections, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) juggernaut rolled over the Opposition in Bihar. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Janata Dal (United), and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) combine won an incredible 39 out of 40 seats and led in 223 of the 243 assembly segments. A Centre for the Study of Developing Societies post-poll survey in 2019 indicates that 64% of Bihar’s voters wanted Narendra Modi as Prime Minister (PM), among his highest popularity ratings in the country.
This is not, however, a national election, but an intensely localised, fragmented battle where jobs and sadak-pani (roads-water) matter more to voters than chest-thumping on Article 370. In every assembly election in the last 12 months, the BJP’s vote share has substantially declined in comparison to that in the general elections. Where Modi is not a factor, the Opposition has more than half a chance of resurrecting itself. Bihar, it would seem, is no different. The buzz around the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Tejashwi Yadav’s campaign is indicative that younger voters, in particular, are hankering for change. He is now clearly an inheritor of Lalu Prasad’s mantle with the Muslim-Yadav political coalition as his bankable asset. That Tejashwi speaks the more inclusive language of rozgaar (employment) and refrains from the more polarising Mandal versus Mandir rhetoric is a reflection of the changing grammar of Bihar’s politics.
Contrast the enthusiasm around the challenger’s campaign with the growing listlessness around chief minister (CM) Nitish Kumar’s electioneering. This is not the Sushashan babu Nitish Kumar of a decade ago whose trenchant attack on Lalu Prasad’s jungle raj received a euphoric response. Now, Nitish Kumar’s claim to be a no-nonsense administrator has taken a hit, as has his credibility as a secular leader.
Far too many political U-turns and a growing disconnect with the masses have left Nitish Kumar a vulnerable figure. Where once he could challenge Modi’s credentials to lead the country, this is an election being fought under the overarching persona of Brand Modi. The rules of the BJP-JD(U) engagement are clear: Nitish Kumar is a regional player, Modi is the Big Boss.
And yet, if the Ni-Mo double engine is still ahead in most opinion polls, it is a pointer to the political vacuum in Bihar whose politics has been dominated by the Lalu-Nitish duo for more than a quarter-century now. It also reveals how artfully the BJP has co-opted the Mandal forces without compromising on its core Hindutva brand in a manner that places the party in pole position to become the single-largest party for the first time.
Bihar, in a sense, was the last Hindi heartland bastion left to conquer for the saffron party. In every other Hindi-speaking state, the BJP has had its CM and emerged as a principal player. In Bihar, the party was long forced to play second fiddle to the rising Mandalite assertion. As late as 2005, the BJP’s vote share in assembly elections in Bihar was just 10.4%, one reason why the party needed to cede space to Nitish Kumar in the original power-sharing arrangement.
All that could change in 2020. While the BJP leadership has re-emphasised that Nitish Kumar is their chief ministerial candidate, the shift in the balance of power is obvious. The BJP is banking on Moditva and the PM’s chemistry to offset the anti-incumbency that has built up against the Nitish Kumar regime after 15 years in power, with a mood of fatigue and dissatisfaction, if not outright anger. The BJP wants to keep Nitish Kumar within the broader NDA umbrella, but also wants to distance itself from his government.
In the process, the BJP is engaged in a dangerous chess-like game of political brinkmanship. Allow a central government ally like LJP leader Chirag Paswan to chip away at Nitish Kumar’s image of being an efficient administrator, while at the same time ensure that a weakened CM has no option but to remain dependent on BJP support. It’s a high-risk strategy but one designed to ensure that, in the next five years, the BJP is well-placed to eventually take over the Bihar government and break another barrier: Have its own CM in India’s third most populous state.
Post-script: Super overs have been the flavour of this season’s Indian Premier League. In the Bihar Political League too, there is an outside chance that we could have a post-poll numbers game play out as it did so dramatically in Maharashtra last year. The question is: Would a Nitish Kumar, pushed to the wall, break away from the BJP like an Uddhav Thackeray did, and can an ageing Lalu Prasad play a Sharad Pawar-like role as senior statesman? Unlikely for now, but in Bihar’s political shatranj, who checkmates whom is never quite certain!
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal