“Do not forget who gave you the courage to stand on your own legs. If it wasn’t Laluji, you would not have been standing here. Do not let them overpower you once again. It’s not a chunav (election) but a chunauti (challenge).”
That was Master Majhi, a local leader, addressing a small gathering of Dalits and members of other backward communities at a “nukkad sabha” in Motihari.
As night falls and the size of the crowd increases, a Muslim leader asks what Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given them in return for his spectacular victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Then, a woman leader takes the stage to remind them how Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has worked for their progress and the “development” of Bihar.
The BJP may be projecting this assembly elections in Bihar — the second phase of voting is on Friday — as a contest of “vikas” (development) versus caste. And in parts of the Champaran region, the focal point of the campaign is indeed “vikas”. But disturbingly for the BJP, it’s JD(U) leader Nitish who is giving a fierce challenge to Modi for the title “vikas purush” in this agrarian belt.
Apart from all the caste calculations — upper-caste consolidation, and split in OBC and Dalit votes for NDA versus the Yadav-Muslim base of the rival ‘grand alliance’ — the BJP is hoping to woo the fence-sitters with a “wave” and has succeeded to an extent.
And it’s here that the Modi-Nitish face-off comes into play. To counter the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance that has Lalu Prasad’s ability to consolidate Yadavs and Muslims, and Nitish’s unblemished image and track record, the NDA has evoked Modi’s name even in constituencies that are seen as strongholds of its allies LJP, RLSP or HAM.
The voters across these constituencies identify the NDA only with Modi. BJP’s call for a “parivartan” in Bihar that would happen hand-in-hand with PM Modi seem to have many takers in the Champaran region too.
However, in the five constituencies in this region — Motihari, Lauriya, Narkatiaganj, Bettiah and Begaha — no one, even BJP supporters, did not have anything to say against Nitish’s rule or the work he has done. The BJP’s attack against Nitish focuses on his alliance with Lalu Prasad who, according to the party, is a symbol of “jungle raj”.
“Nitishji has committed just one mistake. He has joined hands with Lalu Prasad,” said Rambabu Paswan of Mahwal village in Motihari.
Parmanand Upadhyay of Pakrihar village in Lauriya constituency agrees that Nitish stands for development, despite the poor condition of the state highway that goes through his village.
“Nyay ke saath vikas (development with justice) has been Nitish babu’s slogan. He has taken every community along with him. He has constructed roads, improved education sector and has given us power,” said Upadhyay.
But Upadhyay and his neighbours are sure that they will not vote for the RJD candidate when their turn comes on November 1. “We will vote for the Independent, who will later support Nitish babu,” he said.
“Had Nitish Kumar fought alone, it would have been good,” said Jitendra Dubey in Bagaha town.
Sensing this mood, the BJP leaders here have started taking the credit for development in the state, claiming that much of it happened when they were in power with JD(U) till June 2013.
Addressing an impressive gathering at his first rally after filing the nomination papers, BJP candidate Raghav Saran Pande, a former IAS officer, told his voters: “It’s a choice between vikas and vinaash (destruction). All have had their role in Bihar. Nitish worked for the state when BJP was with him, he was good as long as the BJP was with him.”
Pande’s campaign, just like that of many others in his party, is about change. “I am seeking your vote for change, a change from the backwardness to the path of progress, a change from poverty,” he said.
But Sadhu Baba, a religious leader who spoke from the same dais, reminded Pande that it’s not just development his voters are seeking. “We cannot sacrifice our culture for vikas,” he said.
Yet, the crowd in BJP rallies and processions do not present a rainbow support base as the party desires. For instance, Pande’s audience was predominantly upper caste.
Bhupnarayan Yadav, who introduced himself as the BJP’s district vice-president in Bagah, did not hide his anger at being denied a ticket. “I was the candidate till the last minute. All the local TV channels showed my name,” said Yadav, adding that he was denied the ticket to please the upper castes.
The party’s local leaders said the Yadav support base was still with the RJD and that the BJP did not expect Muslims in the area to vote for it, either. “Even if some Muslim youths were to vote for Modi, the recent developments like (the lynching of a man over rumours of cow slaughter in) Dadri and the debate on beef, in which the media has criticised us unfairly, will sway them,” said a party leader.
However, it’s not just the Muslims who are upset over such incidents. “I am a Brahmin and I should be voting for BJP. But BJP’s policy is, ‘kato maro, kursi pe baitho’. We Hindus keep the cows, and give them away to Muslims when they are sick or old. How can you blame them for killing cows? If I fell down, people nearby will take me to hospital, why should I see if they are Muslims or Hindus?” asked Upadhyay, a die-hard Nitish fan.
For him, this election is to “teach” Modi and the BJP “a lesson in humanity”.