In times when a BJP in permanent campaign mode sets the tone, no election is too far away. It is no surprise, then, that the drumbeats of the 2020 assembly polls can already be heard in Bihar. The JD(U) has reacted aggressively to a publicly aired suggestion from the BJP camp that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar should now move to the Centre, leaving Bihar to the care of the Modi-BJP and, to a lesser extent presumably, his own party’s second rung. Senior BJP leader and Nitish’s deputy Sushil Kumar Modi’s tweet in support of “captain” Nitish may not have had the desired calming effect on the controversy, given the curious fact that he tweeted, deleted and then re-tweeted the same remark. And that is not all. The JD(U) has tweaked its Nitish-centric poster campaign after the RJD labelled the earlier one — “Kyun karein vichar, thikke toh hai Nitish Kumar (why should we think again when Nitish Kumar is doing fine)” — as “defeatist”. Meanwhile, the RJD poster promoting the idea of a “Tejashwi sarkar” in 2020 has provoked its ally, Congress, to point out that the question of the chief ministerial candidate is still open. The war of words and posters that has begun in Bihar is telling.
It speaks of the unease and discomfort within the two main alliances, the BJP-JD(U) on one side and the RJD-Congress on the other, in a state that was, not too long ago, and till Nitish Kumar switched sides again, being seen as the starting point of the combined Opposition’s challenge to the might of the rising BJP. More significantly, in a state where the fundamental bijli-sadak-paani issues are still works-in-progress, and where the turnaround story of the first two Nitish tenures has plateaued, the current political exchange shows how personalities threaten to overtake Bihar’s issues and even eclipse them. In a sense, that last bit was foretold. The Modi campaign has set the template for all other parties — they can resist the temptation to mimic its presidential thrust and style at their own peril. It is also true that in a state where parties are weakly institutionalised, politics has long been dominated by personalities anyway. Yet, the promotion of Modi, Nitish and Tejashwi by their respective parties in Bihar today is significant.
The state that has often been a fore-runner of national political trends — be it in terms of the possibilities and then the limits of “social justice”, or the balance that “samajik nyay” must strike with development or “vikas” — is again a signpost to the future. No longer can issue-based politics be seen in neat-and-tidy opposition to personality-centric politics, it says. The dividing line between the two is blurring inexorably. As in Bihar, so also elsewhere, the political challenge for all players in the time of Modi may be this: To articulate the issue and to tell the story through the persona of the leader.