Could Nitish have rocked own boat?

Lok Sabha polls weren’t about Nitish but bypolls are, voters say. However, tie-up with Lalu is a problem.

Written by Vandita Mishra | Patna/ Hajipur/ Chhapra/ Bhagalpur | Published:August 20, 2014 2:11 am
Women of EBCs in Chhapra; Nitish is a strong contender for this constituency’s votes. ( Source: Express photo by Prashant Ravi ) Women of EBCs in Chhapra; Nitish is a strong contender for this constituency’s votes. ( Source: Express photo by Prashant Ravi )

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.

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  1. R
    Rajeev
    Aug 20, 2014 at 4:53 am
    For me he did a mistake by joining hands with Lalu. This has dented his image. Not only because Lalu is known for goonda raj and corruption but also for vitrolic attack they did on each other.
    Reply
    1. G
      guptadkj
      Aug 21, 2014 at 5:46 am
      Lalu is a convicted criminal out on bail.Are the people of Bihar stupid that they will vote for him or his illiterate bucolic wife? Nitish has committed political harakiri by joining hands with the crooks.
      Reply
      1. P
        Prem Kumar
        Aug 20, 2014 at 5:05 am
        A commonly heard jibe: in “achche din”, the tomato costs as much as petrol. Ms. Mishra is it responsibility of Union Government to produce and market tomato and check its price. Tomato is not similar to onion or potatoes. And If the tomato costs as much as petrol, what are the state governments doing to check it?
        Reply
        1. M
          Mandhata Prasad
          Aug 20, 2014 at 3:33 am
          Nitish has created a new bad name of wrong politician in the history of India. Now he has proven the inner feeling of cast politics persist in his soul. Now he is going to learn the meaning of SIDHANT
          Reply
          1. M
            madhukar nikam
            Aug 20, 2014 at 6:58 am
            Let the author write her analysis on 26th Aug 14 after results, I am sure she would write about weather changes in Bihar than on results of embly poll
            Reply
            1. R
              Rakesh Katyal
              Aug 20, 2014 at 4:48 am
              Aligning with Lalu is even a bigger ber than calling off the alliance with BJP. Nitish has got it all wrong this time around.
              Reply
              1. R
                Ravi Ranjan
                Aug 20, 2014 at 3:53 am
                Nitsh has been truly dwarfed by Lalu who in all meeting clearly demonstrates that he is now calling the shots.
                Reply
                1. S
                  S.L Singh
                  Aug 20, 2014 at 10:27 am
                  Nitish Kumar confidence was completely shaken after Lok Shabha election results were out. He was astonished and till date he is in fix what to do.As a clever politician and administrator he could have kept low and maintained silence and peace. He has given many things to Bihar and it will give good in return to Nitish,but in hurry to strengthen his position he fell in trap of Lalu, the Ghotala man. He will chew Nitish .If this alliance wins Lalu will certainly claim CM post for his son or wife Rabri to rule Bihar again(from behind) .So jangal raj will be revived.Still time is there for Nitish to come out from his ego and go to public with open mind alone and ask vote for better future of Bihar. He will be supported by all if he makes balance in social equation .
                  Reply
                  1. S
                    shyama
                    Aug 21, 2014 at 2:34 am
                    Can't agree with you more - his "spite the BJP" twice will bite him right back and big time where it hurts the most. By far, Nitish was someone who cared and did some real groundwork in Bihar after decades of looting and oppression in the state.
                    Reply
                    1. S
                      shyama
                      Aug 20, 2014 at 6:36 am
                      So will Nitish win ? After his Lalu alliance ? Will people in Bihar vote for Nitish and what he gave to Bihar in good administration? If so, Lallu's deputies - wife, sons, daughters with a host of other cannibals in the ring will swiftly stake claim, grab whatever post they can and send the state reeling back into the spirals of all over again.Lallu can be witty, but he is the dirtiest, sly fox with blood on his hands and greed in his blood.
                      Reply
                      1. V
                        vinay kanchan
                        Aug 23, 2014 at 10:36 am
                        Nitish Kumar has lost his confidence and he is acting insanely. He was once a good CM but was thinking to become PM. He was over pionate and now he is doing everything to stop BJP. Joining hands with Laluji will do no good for JDU. Clearly Lalu will win few seats but JDU wont. Various leaders left RJD and joined JDU.
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