After snapping ties with BJP, Nitish faces his toughest political battle ever

Nitish Kumar warned if the people did not strengthen his hands in the parliamentary elections. Nitish Kumar warned if the people did not strengthen his hands in the parliamentary elections.

He was seen as Bihar’s development man and a master of social engineering. But in the middle of the general elections, Modi holds the development plank, Lalu the Muslim vote, and Nitish finds himself alone, and at the wrong end of caste calculations. Has the arrow missed the mark?

Tyag tej tap bal se rakshit yah swatantrata, dukhi manujata ke hit arpit yah swatantrata/ ise mitane ki sazish karne walon se keh do, chingari ka khel bura hai (Sacrifice and penance sustain freedom, and this freedom is dedicated to humanity. Tell those who conspire to maul this freedom, don’t play with fire)’.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar put this verse up on Facebook recently. The message was clear to those who read between the lines and even those who didn’t, for these were from a poem written by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the former prime minister and conscience keeper of the BJP.

Few could have predicted this a year ago, that the man who once thought he had proved himself in Bihar would find himself with the most to prove in the state — least of all Nitish, who after taking the gamble of snapping ties with the BJP over Narendra Modi is facing his toughest political battle ever.

At a rally in Harnaut, a town in Nalanda district, a crowd is gathered on April 17 to hear the CM speak. It’s a small venue, and this is Nitish’s backyard. But the high school ground is only half full, with just about 3,000 people turning up. Nitish begins by reading out names of 20 party leaders and some mukhiyas, and moves on to talk about the improvement in law and order, the development he has brought to the state, and the ‘special category’ status he has planned for Bihar. “Vote for the pride of Nalanda and the progress of Bihar,” he appeals as he garlands the JD(U) Nalanda candidate, Kaushlendra Kumar. The audience is listless — there are no cheers for JD(U), Kaushlendra or Nitish. Instead, two youths murmur “no, no, do not garland him”.

Nitish senses the change. Instead of talking about himself and his development story, his campaigns, including his speeches, are now increasingly centred around his bete noire Modi and the BJP’s “bayan bahadurs (tall claimants)”. Even the JD(U)’s poll punchline, ‘Abki baar karen vichar, sahi neeti sahi sarkar’, sounds a lot like the BJP’s ‘Abki baar Modi sarkar’. However, even party insiders admit that the game plan may not work.

It was in June 2013 that Nitish pulled out of the NDA after the BJP declared Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, perhaps confident that if Modi was the “development man”, he too had turned around a state much more backward than Gujarat into one of India’s fastest-developing states in his eight-year rule. Nitish also calculated that the upper caste votes he would lose by splitting with the BJP would be offset by the Muslim voters he would gain. And that armed with the two weapons of development and secularism, he would be an important player in the 2014 elections.

Nitish had his script ready. But fact is stranger than fiction, particularly when written in Bihar’s caste alphabet soup. First, Lalu Prasad made a striking comeback. Written off after his decimation in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the RJD chief was convicted by a special CBI court in the fodder scam in September last year. Alongside came the Supreme Court verdict disqualifying convicted MPs and Rahul Gandhi’s public rejection of an ordinance that could have saved Lalu from demitting office. It was all falling into place for Nitish. But then, Lalu walked out of jail in December on bail and since then, has posed a serious challenge to Nitish, tapping into the Muslim-Yadav (M-Y) votes.

The other shocker came from the Congress. After keeping the JD(U) waiting and guessing for long, the Congress chose the RJD for its “secular alliance” against the NDA, leaving Nitish out in the cold. Then, Third Front, an idea of which Nitish was among the foremost promoters, also fell flat.

What has rankled Nitish the most, though, is that the BJP kept gaining in the state, riding on Modi’s development image and even his OBC status. The upper castes are with the BJP, and probably a big chunk of the OBCs too.

Close Nitish aides admit he can’t shake off his Modi fixation. Even in private conversations, they say, the dominant topic is his Gujarat counterpart and ways to counter him. Some aides try to humour the CM by saying how Modi’s rallies are “poorly-attended”. An aide had once told Nitish that a Modi rally in Orissa had drawn “only 5,000 people” and that “clever camera work had exaggerated crowd presence”. A pleased Nitish responded, “Chaliye, expose ho gaye na”.

But soon after this, Modi’s Bihar campaign began and the numbers at his rallies were too significant to be brushed aside. A senior JD(U) leader concedes that the more the party dismissed the Gujarat CM publicly, the more it fell into the BJP’s trap of Modi trumping Nitish.

Of late, Nitish has been staying away from most advisers — apparently he doesn’t want too many people around him, “wasting political energy on gossip”. He has also taken to feverish campaigning. Surviving on a lunch of paranthas, aalu ki bhujiya and kaddu sabzi, Nitish has been helihopping to public rallies across the state. Between meetings too, he avoids talking, taking short naps instead. Even his favourite herbal-oil head massage has become irregular.

Insiders say the CM is trying to not show his emotions, save an occasional irritated expression, and avoids visitors at his bungalow. A few days before the April 30 polling day, Nitish’s official residence at 1, Anne Marg, Patna, was quiet, with the CM away campaigning in Madhepura for Sharad Yadav. This was in stark contrast to the house just behind it — that of Lalu, abuzz with visitors.

There are other signs coming from that house indicating which way the wind is blowing. Lalu, who at one time was scathing in his attack on Nitish, barely speaks of him these days, focusing his energies on Modi. The contest is for the Muslim vote, and Lalu believes he is gaining over Nitish, particularly when combined with his steadfast Yadav support. Muslims, known to vote for the combination most likely to defeat the BJP, see the RJD-Congress as being better placed to do that than the JD(U).

“I have never seen the CM so rattled as when JD(U)’s Kishanganj candidate Akhtarul Iman pulled out of the contest. A person who severed ties with the BJP for Muslims has a Muslim candidate pulling out of the fray. Nothing could have been worse in the midst of elections,” says a senior IPS officer.

Seventy per cent of the population in Kishanganj is Muslim, and a win from here would have given a big boost to the JD(U)’s secular claims. Iman had won the Assembly seat thrice on an RJD ticket before switching sides to the JD(U). His withdrawal, saying he “did not want to split the secular vote”, dealt a psychological blow to the JD(U).

Nitish was learnt to have confessed his disappointment to his aides. “Akhtarul was an RJD MLA. It was he who approached us for a ticket. But he pulled out at a time when we could not find a replacement,” he is believed to have fumed.

The message Iman’s withdrawal sent out to Muslims was that they should go with the RJD-Congress rather than the “non-starter” JD(U), says the IPS officer. This, he says, has “demoralised” the JD(U)’s other Muslim candidates.

An upset Nitish has let them know they are not doing enough. Bhagalpur candidate Abu Qaisar, who starts his campaign at 11 am, by which time his rivals would have covered three to four meetings, has been pulled up for his “casual” attitude. Madhubani candidate Ghulam Gous, Nitish feels, is “not campaigning with intensity” in Muslim-dominated localities against his formidable RJD challenger Abdul Bari Siddiqui. The JD(U) has two other Muslim candidates in the fray — Shahid Ali Khan from Sheohar and Salim Pervez from Saran.

Privately, the party has reconciled to the likelihood of the RJD-Congress doing better than the JD(U) in constituencies where Muslims form more than 20-25 per cent of the population, such as Araria, Katihar, Darbhanga and Madhubani. “In our campaigns, we have succeeded in weakening the BJP in these areas, but it may not convert into

an advantage for us, and the RJD has all the chances of winning,” says a key JD(U) leader.

The JD(U) has also been hurt by several high-profile resignations. In February, former minister Parveen Amanullah joined the Aam Aadmi Party. In March, Rajya Sabha MP N K Singh crossed over to the BJP, and ex-minister Renu Kushwaha’s husband Vijay Singh Kushwaha joined the BJP in the presence of Modi at a rally in Purnea.

Sources say that Kushwaha’s defection pinched Nitish the most. “Renu was Sharadji’s choice. She came from nowhere to become our party MLA and also a minister. But now she has ditched us for the BJP,” Nitish is said to have rued.

Vijay Singh Kushwaha, contesting on a BJP ticket, is now posing a formidable challenge to JD(U) president Sharad Yadav in Madhepura. The other candidate from the seat is RJD strongman Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav. Sharad Yadav has won the Madhepura seat four times previously, losing only once to Lalu.

Retaining the seat, which polled on April 30, is a matter of prestige for the JD(U), but the battle has not been easy. It’s Yadav vs Yadav in Madhepura, a Yadav bastion with some 5 lakh people from the community. Sharad Yadav faces anti-incumbency, and Pappu Yadav has done an intensive door-to-door campaign. “Sharadji is badly placed but people will vote for him because of his national stature,” claims a party leader.

Still, Nitish campaigned hard in Madhepura, holding several public meetings along with Sharad Yadav. The latter also visited the village of jailed Rajput leader Anand Mohan to woo Rajput voters. Mohan used to be a powerful Rajput leader of Madhepura before being convicted in a lynching case. He is still believed to have some influence among his caste members.

Another seat that has become a prestige issue for Nitish is Purnea, currently held by BJP candidate Uday Singh, N K Singh’s younger brother. Uday Singh had angered the CM in 2012, when he held a “survey” and a big “vedna pradarshan” rally in Purnea, exposing “poor governance and anti-incumbency” in Bihar. The JD(U) was then part of the NDA. Nitish’s public meetings in the constituency, which voted on April 24, had the “single-point” agenda of defeating Uday Singh, says a JD (U) insider.

“Even if we finish behind the BJP and RJD, it will be poetic justice for us if the BJP loses Purnea and Nawada,” he says. Why Nawada? “Because BJP candidate Giriraj Singh (infamous for the go-to-Pakistan jibe) has spoken a lot against Nitish, and even said that Narendra Modi would finish him politically.”

A major reason for the JD(U)’s victory in the 2005 and 2010 Assembly elections, as well as the 2004 and 2009 Lok Sabha polls, was its success in bringing together OBCs, EBCs (extremely backward classes) and Mahadalits on the same platform as the upper castes and Baniyas. While the upper castes and Baniyas voted for the BJP, the OBCs, EBCs, Mahadalits and even some Muslims voted for the JD(U), thus ensuring a comfortable victory for the NDA. Nitish announced special schemes for EBCs, Mahadalits and Muslims so that they would vote for the JD(U) despite an alliance with the BJP.

With the BJP gone, this is the first big test of the JD(U)’s social engineering. Both the Mahadalits, who form 12 per cent of the population, and the EBCs, who form 30 per cent, are scattered across several districts and don’t form a formidable chunk anywhere. Besides, they don’t vote as a single bloc, and tend to vote according to the dominant mood in the district. For now, Modi or Lalu seem to be dominating the mood in most places.

Besides, Nitish has not played his caste card. Lalu is a leader of the Yadavs and the Muslims, and Modi, an OBC, is being projected by the BJP as a leader of the OBCs. Nitish, a Kurmi, has not attempted to play up his OBC status.

Nitish’s development talk nothwithstanding, the caste factor was at play even in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Though the JD(U) won half of Bihar’s 40 seats, it wasn’t very far ahead of the RJD in terms of vote share. The JD(U) got 24.04 per cent votes, the RJD 19.31 per cent, the BJP 13.97 per cent, and the Congress 10.26 per cent. The 2010 Assembly polls too saw a similar vote share pattern.

Political analyst Ajay Kumar says, “Nitish probably thought he would be the sole champion of development in Bihar after splitting with the NDA, but the BJP has taken equal credit for it, and has even accused him of going slow in his second term. EBCs have not yet developed into a constituency the way the Yadavs have for Lalu. Muslims are not taking the JD(U) as the main challenger to the BJP. All of Nitish’s calculations have gone wrong.”

Now, even the most generous projections for the JD(U) give it not more than five-seven seats. Party poll strategists have tried to humour Nitish by saying that the JD(U) might still win 10 seats — Gaya, Jamui, Purnea, Araria, Nalanda, Madhepura, Sitamarhi, Supaul, Jhanjharpur and Khagaria — where they have fielded strong candidates and there is a good number of EBCs and Mahadalits.

However, according to another insider, Nitish is getting around to the idea of “bouncing back in the Assembly elections on the development plank”. And for this, it would politically suit him, the insider adds, “if the RJD, not the BJP, was the major gainer in this election”. Besides the animosity between him and his former partner, that is another reason the CM is targeting the BJP, not the RJD, in his campaigns.

“He is not worried about the threat from the RJD. But he perhaps knows everything about each of the BJP candidates, along with their strengths and weaknesses,” says a CM aide.

On Modi’s jibe of “the arrow missing the mark this time”, Nitish recently said, “Those who think that the arrow (JD-U election symbol) has missed the mark do not know Bihar. If the arrow misses the mark, electricity will go off and the days of the flickering lantern (RJD symbol) will be back. There will be no bridges and you will see mud all around, though I am not sure of the lotus (BJP symbol) blooming in it”.

HEADING DOWN

JUNE 16, 2013
JD(U) parts away with BJP

DECEMBER 16, 2013
Lalu Prasad released from Jail

FEBRUARY 4, 2014
Social Justice minister Parveen Amanullah quits the party, later joins AAP

MARCH 11, 2014
Industries minister Renu Kushwaha quits party after husband Vijay Kumar Singh named BJP nominee against Sharad Yadav in Madhepura

MARCH 21, 2014
N K Singh, denied re-nomination to Rajya Sabha by Nitish, resigns and later joins BJP

APRIL 15, 2014
JD(U)’s strongest Muslim candidate Akhtarul Iman withdraws from contest, demoralising other Muslim candidates of the party