As the first phase of the Bihar assembly election gets under way on Monday in 49 constituencies, comprising 1.35 crore of the 6.68 crore voters who will vote in the five-step exercise ending November 5, the BJP-led NDA and the “Maha gathbandhan” (grand coalition) of JD(U)-RJD-Congress appear to be locked in an even contest. But if the results reflect this assessment, it could be advantage NDA as most of the constituencies that vote in the opening round are JD(U) strongholds — it won 29 seats here in alliance with the BJP in 2010.
Reflecting the high stakes in the battle, Bihar’s Excise Minister Awadhesh Kushwaha made a dramatic exit from the government on Sunday night — resigning after allegedly being caught on camera accepting Rs 4 lakh from individuals posing as “businessmen from Bombay”.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar responded to one of two videos uploaded to YouTube on Saturday by asking for the minister’s resignation — and the JD(U) withdrew Kushwaha’s candidature from Pipra by late evening.
“We have a zero tolerance policy on corruption. However, at this time, it would be apt to point out that the BJP did not do the same for its former president Bangaru Laxman,” said K C Tyagi, the party’s national spokesperson. Kushwaha denied the allegation and said he would sue for defamation.
The JD(U) is contesting 24 seats in the first phase under the new alignment and will be keen to know if the party, steered by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, has been able to attract key segments, including EBCs, Mahadalits and, most importantly, the Yadavs — an early indication of whether its tie-up with Lalu Prasad’s RJD has worked at the ground level.
The RJD, which has fielded 17 candidates here, won only four seats here last time but gained ground by winning two of the eight Lok Sabha segments, wresting Banka and Bhagalpur from BJP in 2014.
On the other side, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the NDA charge by addressing a string of rallies leading to the first phase in which the BJP has fielded 27 candidates — it won 13 seats in this segment in 2010 — followed by Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP with 13.
With party chief Amit Shah steering the BJP campaign, it has been trying to gain new ground in Banka, Bhagalpur, Samastipur and Begusarai where the Left parties have been been offering resistance in some Begusarai seats. The party’s strategy here is simple: consolidate upper caste votes, split Yadav and Kushwaha votes. A clear indication of this line was the BJP fielding Manoj Yadav from Belhar against JD(U) candidate Girdhari Yadav. Banka is all set to see an engrossing battle between BJP’s Ramnarain Mandal, who won narrowly in the 2014 bypolls, and RJD’s Sarful Hoda.
The first phase will also be a crucial test for the BJP’s alliance partners, LJP and Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM(S). The LJP won four of its six Lok Sabha seats from this region, and Union Minister Paswan will be under pressure to repeat the performance. For Manjhi’s new party, the big test will be the battle between its state chief and Kushwaha leader Shakuni Choudhary and JD(U)’s Mewa Lal Chaudhary in Tarapur.
Moving away from the big picture, the first phase has its own share of individual battles that will make for interesting viewing. And here’s how they are shaping up in a phase involving 583 candidates and 13,212 polling stations, including the Naxal-infested districts of Jamui, Lakhisarai and Munger:
Kahalgaon: This is one constituency that the Congress has labelled as a “sure seat” where former assembly speaker Sadanand Singh, who has won from here eight times, looks to have a clear advantage over LJP’s Niraj Mandal. Yet, the party did not take any chances, particularly with LJP rebel Pawan Paswan in the fray, and flew in its president Sonia Gandhi to address a rally on October 3.
Bhagalpur: The Congress had snatched this seat from the BJP in the bypolls but is now up against a formidable candidate — Arjit Shashwat, son of Buxar MP Ashwini Kumar Choubey. Although the BJP has been hit by internal bickerings in this constituency, the crowd that gathered for Modi’s rally here may be an indication that the party may have turned the corner. Yet, success will remain elusive if BJP does not succeed in splitting the Gangota (EBC) votes. Incidentally, Congress candidate Ajit Sharma brought in some glamour to the contest by getting his actor-daughter Neha Sharma to seek votes.
Sarairanjan (Samastipur): Nitish Kumar’s close aide and Water Resources Minister Vijay Kumar Choudhary is facing BJP’s Ranjeet Nirgumi, a political fresher. The big question here is this: will the upper-caste Bhumihars throw their weight behind community member Choudhary and bolster the theory that large sections of upper-caste voters would desert Nitish for tying up with Lalu?
Kalyanpur (Samastipur): Prince Raj, Paswan’s nephew and son of local MP Ramchandra Paswan, is up against his relative and JD(U) veteran Maheshwar Hajari. With Raj’s father facing early anti-incumbency, Raj, a master’s degree-holder, is fighting hard on his electoral debut.
Alauli (Khagaria): Paswan’s younger brother Pashupati Kumar Paras enjoys a slight edge over sitting JD(U) MLA Ramchandra Sada. But then, the Mushahar-Sada votes — over 60,000 — are very crucial here, which is why Paswan had to call over fellow Dalit leader Manjhi to seek votes here.
Jamui: A keen contest is brewing between BJP’s Ajay Pratap Singh and RJD’s Vijay Prakash. This constituency saw a tussle between LJP and HAM(S), with Paswan reportedly backing Independent Anil Singh who was with his party till recently. However, Manjhi had the last word by backing Singh — son of former minister Narendra Singh — for the BJP ticket.