The results of the bypolls on August 21 will decide whether the “maha gathbandhan” or grand alliance that Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) has stitched up with Lalu Prasad’s RJD, with the Congress as its third wheel, can live up to its promise on paper to put up a fight against an ascendant BJP in Bihar. All three parties were swept aside by the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls. The performance of the grand alliance in these bypolls will give the verdict on what is being touted as a unique experiment in opposition unity against the BJP. If successful in Bihar, it could resonate in other parts of the country.
But essentially, this is a story of Nitish Kumar. Travel in Bihar, from Patna to Hajipur to Chhapra and Bhagalpur — the last three among the 10 constituencies headed for bypolls — and the signs are unmistakable that he is the tragic hero of this election and this experiment. No matter what the results on August 25, and even if the grand alliance wins more seats than the BJP, Nitish stands to lose the most politically.
Less than five years ago, in 2010, he was the incumbent chief minister who swept Bihar. At that time, the BJP was by his side but the vote was won in his name and primarily on his slogan of “sushasan” or good governance. Of course, Nitish had done astute social engineering of his own — giving reservations in panchayats to Extremely Backward Classes, and rolling out programmes and schemes for the Mahadalits, a category he also created. But it was arguably the remarkable work done by his government in its first term from 2005-2010 in restoring law and order and building roads that brought him a broad mandate in a famously caste-riven state. He was credited with recasting the crude and pessimistic “social justice versus development” opposition propagated in Lalu raj into a fine and forward-looking balance.
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But now, in the joint campaign run by the grand alliance, the Nitish model seems drowned in an older noise. His “sushasan” is relegated and eclipsed — all but cast away as the slogan that couldn’t hold its own in the Lok Sabha polls against the “false dreams” and “poison” purveyed by Modi’s “prachar tantra” or propaganda machine.
The Nitish-Lalu-Congress campaign’s message and hype are all about uniting the forces of “samajik nyaya (social justice)” and “secularism” to combat Modi.
In constituencies like Chhapra and Hajipur, with small Muslim populations, the chant of social justice is louder than the battlecry against communalism. Here, the alliance is working to ensure that Lalu’s mostly unwavering Yadav base is combined with a scatter of backward groups — non-Yadav OBCs, EBCs and Mahadalits — that Nitish wooed but lost large sections of to the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls.
In Hajipur, at the EBC sammelan organised by the BJP on a wet day, speakers hail Modi as the “atipichada ka beta (son of an extremely backward caste)” and exhort the small crowd to overcome their scatter, as they did in the Lok Sabha polls, and unite again behind the BJP. United, the EBCs can play the kingmaker again, they say.
Away from the city, campaigning in the EBC-dominated village of Hariharpur off the Patna-Muzaffarpur highway, Brishan Patel, a minister in the JD(U) government, claims that the EBCs were misled by the Modi machine in the Lok Sabha polls and have now realised their mistake. “Even the chaiwallah (tea seller) now says that the tea is hot but the dreams have turned cold,” he says. The EBCs will now support the Lalu-Nitish union, he asserts, because it alone can take the “social justice” project forward. After all, they share the same ideological ancestors, from Karpoori Thakur to Lohia.
And in Chhapra, on a three-minute stop at Seedhi Ghat, during a roadshow through Yadav-dominated areas of his erstwhile bastion that his wife lost in the Lok Sabha polls, Lalu winds down the window of his SUV to fling his challenge: now, “mandal” will take on “kamandal”, he tells the waiting group of supporters and onlookers.
Nearly 300 km away, in Bhagalpur, however, where there is a substantive Muslim population, and where the 1989 danga or riot still overhangs the 2014 polls, the focus shifts from backward caste unity. Here, the Lalu-Nitish-Congress alliance paints the poll as a battle to save secularism.
As he campaigns door-to-door, Congress candidate Ajit Sharma insists that Modi could only win the Lok Sabha polls because “the secular voters got divided”, and in the party election office, Mrityunjaya Singh Ganga, Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee secretary, claims that “If after 1989, Bhagalpur became known for the communal riot and set in motion the Congress decline in north India, the 2014 bypoll result will show that secularism has united everyone behind the Congress again”.
In the BJP office across the busy town full of traffic jams, Dhananjay Pandey, a member of the party’s youth wing, asks why only Hindus have been held guilty for the 1989 riot. The long-ago riot is an issue in this election, agrees spokesperson Mrinal Shekhar: “Why did the Nitish government reopen the Bhagalpur files? Why have innocents been caught and jailed?”
But whether it is “secularism in danger” invoked by the grand alliance in Bhagalpur or the plank of “backward caste unity” brandished in Hajipur and Chhapra to counter the Modi-led BJP, both seem leached of “vikas” or governance of the Nitish chief ministership. References to the latter are few and subdued.
At one level, the reasons are evident: Given Lalu’s visible domination of the grand alliance and his reputation for presiding over “jungle raj” when he ruled Bihar, lingering over Nitish’s governance record could prove awkward. The BJP has already seized upon its opening — from Bhagalpur to Chhapra, the spectre of “Jungle Raj 2” features prominently in its candidates’ campaign. Then, there are the difficulties in talking about the record of the Nitish government in a contest that pits the JD(U) against the BJP, given that both parties were partners till recently.
But the ambivalence on the development plank that Nitish had so carefully nurtured goes deeper. It comes from Nitish himself. It flows from his having taken to heart his setback in the Lok Sabha polls.
Campaigning in Bhagalpur, Nitish sounds subdued and bitter: “I brought electricity to your homes,” he says, “and you got misled by the ‘ab ki baar Modi sarkar’ advertising on your TV sets”.
And in Patna, the sulkiness becomes almost a disavowal and self-goal as Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Musahar (the lowest Mahadalit caste) and the man Nitish installed as Chief Minister after he resigned following the Lok Sabha rout, distances himself from the government he heads. Addressing a workshop of newly appointed BDOs, the CM makes a startling confession that is widely reported the next day and gleefully seized by the BJP campaigns from Chhapra to Bhagalpur: he himself had to pay a bribe of Rs 5,000 to settle an inflated electricity bill of Rs 25,000, revealed Manjhi.
Asked why the development plank is so underplayed in the grand alliance’s campaign, Manjhi tells The Indian Express, “Flexibility is needed. You cannot stretch a string so tight that it stops making music, and breaks. (In Lok Sabha polls) the general perception had gone opposite (to the pitch for good governance).”
The campaign trail for the ongoing bypolls is strewn with signs, however, that Nitish may have misread the Lok Sabha result, or overread it. That he took too personally the verdict of a wave election which was against the Congress at the Centre, and for change, of which Modi became the mascot. That he may have been too hasty in giving up his political USP and giving in to the Lalu-Congress mix in which he now looks so lost.