The poll schedule was announced on Wednesday, but the campaign for Bihar wasn’t holding its breath for the Election Commission’s declaration. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already held four rallies in the state for the BJP-led combine, the Nitish Kumar-led coalition made its debut at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan more than a week ago, and the tug of war between “parivartan” and “swabhiman” has begun playing on the ground. Yet, the “change” vs “state pride” face-off that is being set up by the lead players cannot fully describe an election with several cross-cutting strands, whose outcome will be critical not just for the state, but also for the future trajectory of the politics of the ruling party and its opposition beyond Bihar.
The rhetorical jousting so far between Nitish and Modi may have diverted attention from the underlying issues at stake, be it the unresolved identity wars or competing notions of “vikas” in an underdeveloped state of great inequalities. But it has also been revealing. It has given early indications that the Modi-led BJP may be dictating the terms of the electoral battle and that the Nitish Kumar-Lalu Prasad combine is only reacting to it.
It is easy to understand why the BJP appears to have taken centrestage in Bihar — the Modi wave that swept the party to power at the Centre in 2014 also ran through Bihar, installing the BJP as a force to reckon with in a state in which it had been the junior partner in the ruling alliance. That was also the election in which the JD(U), fighting on its own after its break-up with the BJP, faced a rout, after which Nitish rushed to join hands with his old rival Lalu. Yet, by converting their joint campaign into a counter to Modi, the two leaders may well be ceding more space to their common opponent than he had wrested on his own. The tantalising question is this: Under Modi, has the upper caste-dominated state BJP really become the primary pole in a landscape in which Lalu’s ascendance in the 1990s had seemed to reset the balance of power in favour of backward caste leaders who held aloft the slogan and promise of “social justice”?
In a sense, Nitish built upon Lalu’s legacy even as he reversed parts of it that painted an antagonism between “development” and “social justice”. While it is true that Nitish honed his model of politics and governance in partnership with the BJP, the latter’s rise as an independent force, whatever the outcome of the impending electoral battle, will still be seen as a significant break from the past in the politically vibrant state.