Nitish down, it’s between Modi and rising Lalu in Bihar

Can Lalu Prasad Yadav steal the BJP thunder in Bihar?

When Bihar began voting on April 10, the question did not figure on the minds of pollsters. The first two phases featured constituencies where the BJP was expected to do well and Lalu Prasad Yadav and his RJD were not really factors.

But Lalu’s Muslim-Yadav (M-Y) combination is believed to have come into play strongly in the third and fourth phases and the RJD is expected to push forward even in the last two phases that are yet to vote.

And so the questions are now being asked: Is Lalu blocking a “Modi surge” in Bihar because the BJP has not been able to sustain the so-called “Modi wave” despite a series of Modi rallies? Have old caste and community calculations Bihar is notorious for come into play again?

Hints to those answers may lie in Lalu’s relaxed and upbeat demeanour during these polls, with supporters claiming that they have never seen him in such a positive mood in nine years.

After the electoral drubbing in 2009 and 2010, Lalu had reconciled to the “winning social combination” of Nitish and the BJP against his M-Y combination. But Nitish leaving the NDA changed that.

This election has not only given him the opportunity to consolidate his vote bank but also stress his credentials as the “sole flag-bearer” of secularism. Nitish, on the other hand, has been left to pitch both secularism and development and is seen, in a sense, to have fallen between two stools.

The most liberal poll surveys have not given RJD more than nine seats. But the growing feeling is that Lalu may well surprise himself and others as he did in 2004 when his party won 22 seats against the BJP’s high-pitched “India Shining” campaign. RJD insiders reckon the party stands a very good chance in at least 15 of the 27 seats it is contesting.
Even Lalu is going around saying the media is throwing up more seats for his party now after forecasting only three wins initially. Political parties and analysts see five reasons behind Lalu possibly playing spoilsport for Modi in Bihar.

POLL DURATION TOO LONG TO SUSTAIN MODI FACTOR: With several BJP candidates also facing anti-incumbency, party sources said sustaining the momentum of the “Modi wave” has been hard work. Modi has had to address public meetings in every phase and at times, three to four places in a day. In fact, sources said it was the BJP’s good fortune that the polls began in the party’s “safe zones”. “Had the election started with Seemanchal or Mithilanchal which have a sizeable Muslim population, the Modi wave could have vanished into thin air,” said the leader, adding that Bihar will never grow out of its politics centred around caste and community.

STRONG M-Y CONSOLIDATION: Bihar’s 18 per cent Muslim population has a strong presence in 12 constituencies and its 13 per cent Yadav population has backed Lalu even during his worst shows. This time, the M-Y consolidation appears strong.

In Ichchanbigha village of Karakat constituency, Yadavs claimed the community had recorded a 70 per cent turnout on April 10. “There is so much talk of a Modi wave, if we do not vote as a block for Laluji, how can we ensure an RJD win?” asked a Yadav voter, adding that they can never vote for any other party.

Although Muslims laud Nitish’s good work, they feel he faces some anti-incumbency and that Lalu stands a better chance against Modi. “We have to support RJD candidate MAA Fatmi more strongly than before. Increased vote percentage gives him a better chance of victory against BJP MP Kirti Azad, who has been luring people donning the Modi mask,” said Mohammed Siraj, a Darbhanga voter.

Adds Abdul Bari Siddiqui, a senior RJD leader and Madhubani candidate: “The RJD got 76 lakh votes against the NDA’s 1.13 crore in the 2010 assembly polls. The numbers show a measure of our vote base. It is time to consolidate it, more so since Nitish and BJP are not together”.

LEADING THE CHARGE AGAINST MODI: Lalu has been championing himself as Modi’s main challenger on the platform of secularism, using the choicest epithets for the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and regaling voters. He has also attacked Nitish and called him greedy for Muslim votes. “In this election, Lalu has been able to impress upon Muslims about being the only champion of secularism. He often convincingly reminds us that it was he who got Advani arrested to reaffirm his secular credentials,” said Ismail, a young Madhubani voter.

NOT HURT BY FODDER SCAM CONVICTION: While pundits wrote Lalu’s political obituary after he was convicted in a fodder scam case and jailed last year, it seems to have won him the sympathy and support of voters. As Lalu spent about two months in jail in Ranchi, supporters gathered at his Patna residence to express solidarity and pledge support. In fact, voters have not been talking about the case and it is Lalu who brings it up to allege a conspiracy.

“I was sent to jail by my political rivals because I have been the voice of the voiceless and championing the cause of secularism”, Lalu said at a public meeting in Pataliputra where his daughter Misa Bharati was the candidate.
On the other hand, Yadavs, who see Lalu as the undisputed leader of their community, want him back to restore a sense of pride and standing in the administration.

NITISH’S LOSS, LALU’s GAIN: As the JD(U) quit the NDA, Nitish’s advisors had calculated that EBCs and a section of the Muslims could give the party a winning social combination. But that claim is being tested on the ground and the signs are not encouraging. Lalu, who was lying low for five years and looking for an opening, seems to have found one. “It is such political irony that Nitish tried so hard to create a constituency and is still not sure about it. Lalu, who went to jail and whose party split, looks to have got it automatically only because the JD(U) and BJP are no longer together with that wining social combination”, said a JD(U) leader, adding that no poll survey was giving them more than five seats.

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