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 …continued »