The announcement of the Bihar election schedule, starting October 12, marks the countdown for a contest that has begun to crystallise around three key questions being asked across the state, from Patna to Chhapra, Bhagalpur to Saharsa and elsewhere.
Is the coming together of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad a sign of weakness and a kind of neutraliser for the development plank of Nitish Kumar? Will 25 years of rule between the two mean double anti-incumbency and a vote for change? And to what extent will Narendra Modi’s chemistry with the populace counter the social arithmetic of Nitish-Lalu combination?
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Whether it is with a Muslim paan seller at Sheetalpur market on the way from Patna to Chhapra, or with residents of Gandamam where the midday meal tragedy took place, or with an EBC Nonia village on the way, it is these three questions that seem to be setting the template for the elections.
Jaleshwar Mahato, an EBC Nonia from Chhapra Abhiman Dolahi village in Saran, has 18 members in his family, eight of them voters. The family, which depends on sharecropping and odd jobs, got power connections for their brick-and-asbestos house four months ago and said they barely get six to seven hours of supply daily.
The Mahatos, one of 18 Nonia families in the village, had voted for Nitish Kumar in 2010. Mahato has heard about the state government’s recommendation on including Nonia among the scheduled castes but does not know what benefits that will bring them. “What prize will I get for voting?” wondered his wife Laichi Devi. “The government has not given us a house. There is no toilet at home. We use tarpaulin on the inner walls of our house to prevent water from seeping in when it rains.”
The Mahato family said they had heard a lot of Narendra Modi and one of them had even travelled to see Modi at his Muzaffarpur rally on July 25. The family is caught in the choice between Nitish and Modi. Jaleshwar’s son Lalan said, “Laluji has ruled Bihar for 15 years and Nitish Kumar for 10 years. Laluji ka koi shor sharaba nahi hai unlike in the 1990s. Who knows, there can be change this time.”
The village is part of Amnaur, won by the JD(U) in 2010. The JD(U) had won four of 10 seats in Saran while its erstwhile alliance partner the BJP had won two.
Mahtab Alam, a paan and tobacco shop owner at Sheetalpur market since 1990, said: “My friends say it will be good if Nitish returns to power but this time I think change may come.” Asked to explain this prediction, he said: “When two friends fall apart and come together again, one is not sure when they will fall apart again.”
Mahtab has four children. His eldest daughter has received money for a school uniform and a scholarship under government schemes. She is still waiting for money to buy a bicycle, he said.
Jaleshwar Rai of Dariyapur, the village of former chief minister Daroga Rai, said the Yadavs are more or less with Lalu Prasad but there have been “problems” with Lalu’s acceptability among other caste groups. “For us, Laluji is the leader but other caste groups are not comfortable with Nitish and Lalu coming together,” said Rai, a small farmer.
Avinash Singh, who works in a private company in Delhi, is from Ekma in Chhapra. He comes home to cast his vote. “It will be wrong to say that Narendra Modi is a choice of just the upper castes. A chorus for the same party ruling at the Centre and in the state is growing. Nitish does not look convincing in the company of Lalu.”