During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, a Muslim voter in Siwan had explained why it didn’t matter to them that the Nitish Kumar-led JD(U) was aligned with the BJP. As reasons, he listed that the school uniform given by the Nitish government was the best dress his son had ever owned, and said he had no problems with the BJP, “the B team” of the JD(U).
That was the time when the popularity of Nitish Kumar, still in his first full term as Chief Minister and riding high on the changes he had ushered into the tired landscape of Bihar, was at its peak. That election, the NDA under him won 32 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar. In the Assembly polls that followed next year, Nitish returned to power with 206 of 243 seats.
It’s not the same Nitish, nor is it the same NDA, with the BJP now enjoying equal billing as the JD(U). More importantly, the extent of Muslim alienation from the Modi-led government at the Centre threatens to rub off on Nitish. Even in the 2015 Assembly polls, with his popularity waning, Nitish had managed to retain the support of Muslims (17% of population) largely on account of Mahagathbandhan partners, RJD and Congress. The fact that he did a turnaround in 2017 and went back to BJP is seen as a stab in the back by the community.
Since then, Nitish, who once made a public show of single-handedly standing in the path of Modi while still in the NDA, has relegated the lead role in the alliance in Bihar to the Prime Minister. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, that the NDA swept with 39 of 40 seats in Bihar, the Congress could win just Kishanganj seat mainly because of its over 70% Muslim population. The AIMIM was third in that seat.
The JD(U) that once had leaders like Ali Anwar, Dr Ejaj Ali and Dr Shakil Ahmed in its ranks now has virtually no big Muslim names apart from MLC and former Rajya Sabha MP Ghulam Rasool Baliyawi.
With 10 of the 115 constituencies it is contesting as a part of the NDA falling in Muslim-dominated areas, the JD(U) has been highlighting steps taken for the benefit of the community in the past 15 years of the Nitish government. The 10 seats are Sikta (candidate Firoz Ahmed Khursheed); Sheohar (Sarfuddin); Araria (Shagufta Azeem); Thakurganj (Naushad Alam); Kochadhaman (Mohammed Mujahid); Amour (Saba Zafar); Darbhanga Rural (Faraz Fatmi); Kanti (Mohammed Jamal); Marhoura (Altaf Raju); and Mahua (Aasma Parbeen).
JD(U) national spokesperson K C Tyagi said: “Right from fencing of cemeteries to starting the Talimi Markaj (bridge course for school drop-outs) to skill development programmes like Hunar and Auzar, Nitish Kumar has done a lot for the community. The coaching centre at Haj Bhavan and some other districts is a great education model. It is up to the Muslim community to decide if they want only slogans or some concrete work.” (Read an Express interview with Tyagi)
Former JD(U) leader Anwar, who now heads an apolitical forum called the All India Pasmanda Muslim Mehaz, said he left the party due to the BJP’s increasing influence. “There is now complete distrust with Nitish. His return to NDA has hurt Muslims. The BJP’s aggressive politics has further distanced Muslims from the JD(U),” he said, adding that the Mehaz has presence in at least two dozen seats and could influence votes there.
While the RJD-Congress still remains the prime claimant to the Muslim vote in Bihar, AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi is expected to pick up a fair share in the Seemanchal belt of Kishanganj, Purnea, Araria and Katihar, further eating into Nitish’s support. AIMIM Bihar youth president Adil Hasan Azad said: “We are talking about development of Seemanchal. We did well in the last Lok Sabha elections and opened our account in the Assembly bypolls. We are seeking a positive vote.”
RJD spokesperson Mrityunjay Tewary said they were confident of minority votes standing behind the Grand Alliance. “They support us because of the secular credentials of Lalu Prasad. We don’t oscillate from one camp to another like Nitish Kumar. It is just a matter of convertibility (of this support) into winning digits. With the Congress and Left, we have a strong alliance. And with the LJP playing its double game (supporting the BJP, and opposing the JD-U), we will upset the NDA’s calculations.”