Statistics are testimony enough, and the people of the state too have recognised that the Nitish Kumar government has been good for them.
This reporter is yet to come across someone who failed to reply in the affirmative. Yet, voter after voter is refusing to vote for Nitish and his party this time.
So, is Bihar’s electorate, which gave Lalu Prasad’s “jungle raj” 15 years, an ungrateful one?
The narrative that has gained currency is that the voters are poised to punish Kumar for his arrogance. However, scratch the surface a bit, and the complexity of the theory comes to the fore. “Because Nitish got arrogant. He was doing so well, but he had to go and anger the Yadavs. The police were told not to help us,” said Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, a Yadav who voted in Hajipur. “He thought he could do it all on his own. We have to show him his rightful place,” said Anirudh Kumar of the Teli caste who will vote in Vaishali, in reference to the JD(U) ending its alliance with the BJP.
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Like almost everything in Bihar, theories about Nitish’s arrogance seem to be split along caste lines. The Yadavs’ theory clearly originates from Lalu Prasad, who in his speeches portrays Nitish as a shrewd operator who played a trick too many. The BJP’s narrative has been that Nitish tried punching above his weight and should be taught a lesson for that.
Another theory is that the Extremely Backward Classes, whom the Nitish government consolidated, identifies with Narendra Modi. While it is something the BJP has been telling voters and journalists, there is scant evidence to prove it. This is mostly because the EBCs are consolidated only on paper — in the villages, they remain scattered with no unifying trait: Jai Narain Nishad is a Mallaah leader, not an EBC champion. In fact, of the few who agreed they identified with Modi, one was a Teli — Anirudh, who said he liked the fact that Modi was from the “Vaishya community”. Another was Pankaj Kumar, a Bhumihar in Vaishali constituency who admitted he has a “soft corner” for Modi. When the EBCs of Muzaffarpur district pledged their vote to Modi, they said it was not because of his identity, but because of what he has promised to do. “He said he will bring back black money… I don’t want a government that does not respond when soldiers’ heads are cut off,” said Fakeeri Sahni.
Why is the Bihar voter seemingly choosing Modi over Nitish for work the former only promises while ignoring the fact that the latter has been good for them for years? “Badlaav chaahiye,” said Vaishali’s Gautam Sahni, whose caste Mallaah falls is among the EBCs. The call for change is part of the BJP rhetoric, something that the party’s leadership has customised here to mean the state government too.
According to Sahni, a graduate who organises tuition for school students, the government has done too much. “Why did he give reservation to women? Now, there are women netas, while their husbands sit at home. When it came to recruiting shiksha mitras, women got preference,” he said. However, for him, the election boils down to one thing: “This is a Hindu-Musalmaan ladaayi.”
As it turns out, Sahni’s sister-in-law is a ward member, a beneficiary of the 50-per-cent reservation for women in panchayats, which he opposes. “This government made so many laws for women. But then, do I sit where the rest of the village is sitting?” Renu Devi asks, not answering whether she still supports Nitish.
The Muslims have stood as one across the country against Modi’s ambition; will they return to the JD(U) once the Modi mission is complete?
“There is a case to renew Nitish’s licence,” said Mohammad Javed, of Hajipur, referring to a possible third term for the JD(U) government. “But will I vote for him in 2015? Let’s see if he gives us a good candidate.”
Unlike what the Modi-heavy campaign of the BJP would have you believe, candidates do matter. To be precise, their castes do. With the BJP taking away the upper castes, the JD(U) is having to fend for itself with a bouquet of backward castes that are being lured with the promise of more development.
The grip of caste is so strong that one comes across many instances where people are torn among their choices. “Why can’t the rest of Bihar vote for Nitish? We Yadavs cannot; he has troubled us so much,” said Raghuvansh Singh of Hajipur. “No one in Bihar gives his vote for work done,” said Surendra Kumar Singh, a Bhumihar in Vaishali who will not vote for the JD(U.
Pankaj Kumar, a young, articulate Bhumihar in Vaishali, felt that “there shouldn’t have to be such a harsh punishment for such a small error”, but he too indicated his vote wasn’t for Nitish.
Nitish may have been crippled by the Hindu-Muslim polarisation and the caste divisions that followed, but he can still hope for a comeback in the next assembly elections. His non-confrontational attitude means he, unlike Lalu, can possibly bring together even the upper castes. “Look, he is not against us. The chief secretary and DGP are Bhumihars,” said Surendra Singh of Vaishali.