AT 60, time could be running out for Upendra Kushwaha. Once seen as Nitish Kumar’s blue-eyed man, the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) chief is now being called a “spoiler” for fronting a platform of six rejects who could not find place in the two main Bihar alliances and who may in the process cut into the Opposition vote.
However, as the first phase of the Assembly polls ends, with the two legs where its chances are brighter beginning now, the Kushwaha-led and ambitiously named Grand Democratic Secular Front (GDSF) is giving it its best shot. Of the 71 seats that voted in the first phase, the six parties that make up the Front — the RLSP, AIMIM, BSP, Suhaldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), former RJD MP Devendra Yadav’s Samajwadi Janata Dal Democratic and Janatantrik Party (Socialist) of Uttar Pradesh — between them campaigned in 62.
The six parties are believed to have the potential to win around 10% of the votes together and may prove kingmaker if the contest is tight. In the 2015 Assembly polls, the RLSP had got over 3.6% of the votes, winning two seats, and the BSP a little over 2%, without winning any.
While the RLSP is contesting on 104 of the 243 seats, the BSP is fighting 80 and the AIMIM 20. The RLSP’s pockets of influence are Aurangabad, Kaimur, Rohtas, East Champaran, Buxar, Shekhpura, Jamui and Munger. The AIMIM could win a few seats in Seemanchal, where it is the strongest, and end up hurting not just the RJD and Congress but also the JD(U). The BSP, that has a good presence in over half-a-dozen seats in Rohtas, Kaimur and Gopalganj bordering UP, might do the same.
BSP chief Mayawati and Kushwaha have held two rallies in the BSP strongholds of Karahgar and Bhabhua. Kushwaha and Owaisi have held 18 joint election meetings. RLSP state president (campaign) Jitendra Nath said: “The crowd connect has been very good. We are asking why the RJD and NDA governments did not provide the jobs they are promising now.”
Said RLSP national general secretary Rahul Kumar, “In at least 40-45 seats, we will get over 5,000 to 35,000 votes.” He added that they are “definitely targeting the JD(U)”, with focus on seats with sizeable Koeri-Kurmi-Dhanuk population. CM Nitish Kumar is a Kurmi.
The AIMIM, that has been long trying to carve out space in the Muslim-dominated Seemanchal area comprising Kishanganj, Purnea, Araria and Katihar districts, has got a fresh wind due to Owaisi’s popularity. Last year, it had made its electoral debut in Bihar winning the bypolls to Kishanganj Assembly seat.
AIMIM Bihar chief Akhrat-ul Iman is contesting from Amour. The party also fancies its chances in Kochadhaman and Bahadurganj.
Owaisi has been promising an “alternative platform” to Bihar, saying, “The RJD-Congress alliance has failed in defeating JD(U) and BJP.” His supporters say he is the only leader talking on Muslim issues, including the NRC.
Addressing a rally in Kochadhaman on Thursday before a sizeable crowd, Owaisi said he is not ruffled by charges that he splits votes, to the benefit of the BJP. He asked if he shouldn’t talk of the CAA, and the crowd replied with a “no”.
That charge, however, is set to grow louder with the BSP declaring on Thursday that its leaders could vote for any candidate, including the BJP, in the UP Legislative Council polls, to defeat the Samajwadi Party. Asked about this, Owaisi told The Indian Express, that “last I checked, they had not decided yet”.
The BSP has been a presence in Bihar for some time. In the February 2005 Assembly polls, it had won six seats. In 2015, it fielded candidates in 228 seats but got none.
The Janatantrik Party (Socialist)’s Sanjay Singh Chouhan is also essentially a UP leader, with influence in Ghosi area. He fought the 2012 and 2017 Assembly polls as well as the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in UP in alliance with the BJP. In the 2019 polls, Chouhan contested unsuccessfully as a Samajwadi Party nominee from Chandauli in UP. In Bihar, the party cadre is active in Bagaha, Valmiki Nagar and Kaimur.
The SBSP of Omprakash Rajbhar, another UP leader, has held rallies in Rohtas and Kaimur where there are sizeable SC Rajbhar votes.
But the leader with the most at stake remains Kushwaha, a lesser known product of the Jayaprakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur movements who first met Nitish in 1985, when he was a youth leader of the Lok Dal. The senior leader’s “method politics”, meticulous file-work and even dress sense are said to have impressed Upendra deeply. It was on Nitish’s suggestion that he added Kushwaha to his name, the caste identity helping bolster his political standing. Kushwahas or Koeris comprise about 7% of the state population. He was a Union minister in the first Modi government.
This time, the RJD kept him hanging, the BJP offered him no more than six seats, while several aides have left him.