No matter who wins Bihar’s 10 assembly bypolls to be held on August 21, Nitish Kumar will be haunted by a what-if: Did he allow himself to be spooked by the Lok Sabha setback into taking second place to Lalu Prasad in the grand alliance between the JD(U), the RJD and the Congress? Did he underestimate the support on the ground for the Nitish model of infusing developmental content into the politics of “social justice” in Bihar?
At the chief minister’s residence, pessimism is palpable after the JD(U)’s Lok Sabha rout. Jitan Ram Manjhi, who belongs to the most disprivileged Mahadalit caste of Musahars, and who was installed by Nitish Kumar as CM after he resigned taking responsibility for the LS results, laments: “Our people were misled.”
According to Manjhi, Nitish lost because his social coalition is half-empowered and inarticulate, while the mainly upper caste groups ranged against him have influence disproportionate to their numbers. “For them, 500 votes become 1,500. For us, 500 became 250,” he says.
Yet, travel away from Patna — The Indian Express went to bypoll-bound Hajipur, Chhapra and Bhagalpur — and conversations with voters reveal a different and, for Nitish, a hopeful story.
Across castes, voters say the Lok Sabha elections were about parivartan at the Centre; that the Congress, which had presided over runaway price rise and corruption, had to go. And that it was a Modi “lehar” — because he was there all over the media and was said to have done good work in Gujarat, and because he looked winnable. Many say: “Everyone was voting Modi, and I did so too because I didn’t want to waste my vote.” But the Lok Sabha election was certainly not a referendum on Nitish. He wasn’t even a lead player.
Ahead of the assembly bypolls, the Modi lehar that broke through caste divisions is already ebbing. A commonly heard jibe: in “achche din”, the tomato costs as much as petrol. And Nitish is back in the frame.
In the Harijan basti of Panapur Langa village in Hajipur, Srikant Paswan, a self-proclaimed Ram Vilas Paswan supporter, explains how the voter’s choice has become more complicated and fragmented: “For the Lok Sabha, everyone was voting Modi and we voted even for Ram Vilasji in Modi’s name. But now, we will keep in mind not just our leader, but also the party and its local candidate. And of course, Nitishji has done tremendous development work, even though corruption has increased.”
In fact, Nitish is not just a factor for the assembly bypolls. He is at their centre. As the leader who may not have a core or committed vote like the Yadavs are for Lalu Prasad, the Paswans for Ram Vilas Paswan or the upper caste phalanx for the BJP, but who is weaning away sections from all vote banks. As a strong contender among the increasingly politicised EBCs — a BJP-organised EBC sammelan in Hajipur imports Kanshiram’s slogan “Vote hamaara, raj tumhara, nahin chalega, nahin chalega” amid frenzied exhortations to unity — and in the Mahadalits, whose extreme deprivation still presents hurdles for political mobilisation. Among Muslims, he appears to be winning against nostalgia for Lalu.
If Lalu is the leader who gave “aawaz” or voice to the poor sand backward but also presided over the “Yadav/jungle raj” that oppressed the poor and backward the most, and the BJP is the aggressive mobiliser which now controls Central largesse for Bihar, Nitish is the leading, if not only, contender for a growing constituency that would give development a greater chance, alongside “social justice” or “secularism”, not at odds with them — visible in the way so many cite reservations along with roads as the Nitish achievements.
“Kaam toh bahut kiye hain”, Nitish has worked a lot, is the refrain in all sections, except the rural upper castes who cannot forgive him for upending the rural power structures by reserving panchayat mukhiya posts for the EBCs.
In the mostly Yadav village of Jatua, in Chhapra, where support for Lalu is open and staunch, Tappelal Yadav sounds categorical: “For the Centre, I voted for Modi because there was a wave. For the assembly, my vote is for Nitish because he has worked for Bihar. I would have voted for him even if he had not tied up with Lalu. He built schools and roads and gave cycles and uniforms to our children. Why should I support Lalu only for his name?”
Ankit Raj, a Dalit student who studies in a Chhapra college, and lives in Jatua’s Chamar basti — where they count “T N Seshan and EVM” as forces that liberated them from Yadav tyranny on voting day — says, “I voted for Modi because I hoped he would provide jobs for young people like me. But for Bihar, there is no one but Nitish. He gave us roads, electricity, reservations, scholarships, school uniforms. He has made one of us the chief minister. But for me, that is not a factor until Manjhi proves himself through his work.”
Raja, who owns a jewellery shop in Chhapra’s Sonarpatti market, belongs to the trading class that has traditionally supported the BJP, but still remembers the heady euphoria of Nitish’s first term. “After a long time, people in Bihar felt free to spend, didn’t hide money in their homes for fear of being targeted by lumpen elements and kidnappers. We could buy bigger cars, spend on ACs and jewellery. In my shop, I started stocking diamonds along with gold.”
There is a slowing down, and some backsliding in Nitish’s second term, he says. “A looseness has set in. Work on roads and drainage in Chhapra has stalled. Nitish promised Chhapra would be one of five ‘model cities’, but the funds haven’t come.” Income tax and sales tax recovery has also dipped, he says, which is “good for me, but not for Bihar”.
Now, with Lalu in his tent, Raja fears, Nitish may have surrendered any possibilities of reviving the optimism of his first term. “There will be pressures on him,” he says.
Many Nitish supporters voice the apprehension Raja hesitates to put into words: Who knows, if Nitish-Lalu get a shot at forming government, a member of Lalu’s family may be installed as CM or deputy CM. After all, hasn’t Nitish already bent by accepting the son of the controversial don-like RJD leader Prabhunath Singh as the grand alliance’s candidate in Chhapra?
In Professors Colony in Bhagalpur University, the regret of missed opportunities hangs heavy in the evening air. “If only Nitish had more conviction in the path he had set out on… He may not have won this election if he had fought alone, but it would have been better for him. And for Bihar,” says Arun Kumar Singh, who teaches botany. “It is because Nitish has lost self-confidence that he has compromised with this Lalu, the jungle raja and leader surrounded and stifled by his family, not the Lalu of the early years,” says M P Verma, who teaches Hindi.
If Nitish had fought these bypolls alone, it might have been a test of the goodwill for him which shores up the burgeoning “vikas vote” in Bihar. Of course, it would have had to contend with the pull and tug of caste affiliation, religious polarisation, local issues, party loyalty and choice of candidate. It would have had to confront perceptions that in its second term the Nitish government is held hostage to afsarshahi or rule of bureaucrats. Then, the BJP and even the RJD have a mobilisation capacity that is far superior to the JD(U)’s, which still lacks a machine it can call its own.
Yet, could the goodwill for Nitish and the “vikas vote” still have become the trumping consideration? Could that have inaugurated a new chapter in Bihar’s history? As he sits next to Lalu on the maha gathbandhan stage, dwarfed by his irrepressible audacity and no-matter-what flamboyance, Nitish — and Bihar — will never know.