In almost all the rallies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s speeches follow a fixed pattern — he lavishes praise on the PM for “giving” schemes worth about Rs 50,000 crore to the state, and talks about Modi’s “strong leadership”. He then goes on to talk about the development his government has brought, how he has “electrified all Bihar villages”, leaving “no need for the lantern (also the RJD’s poll symbol)”. Modi returns the favour by praising Nitish, and pitching development and national security.
The message from the dais is obvious: the NDA campaign in Bihar this time is about Modi, with the Bihar CM a second fiddle.
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This is a stark change from the 2009 election, which the JD(U) had also fought in alliance with the BJP. At the time, Nitish had led the NDA’s charge in Bihar, shared the dais just once with NDA PM contender L K Advani, and, seeking the secular space and a Central profile himself, made a public display of aversion towards then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi.
The JD(U) had contested 25 seats at the time and won 20, while the BJP had won 12. Altogether, the NDA had won 32 seats.
A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since — starting with the fact that in 2014, after the NDA split, the JD(U), fighting alone, had won only two of 40 seats. In 2015 Assembly polls, the JD(U), fighting as a gathbandhan with the Congress and RJD, had finished behind Lalu Prasad’s party. Two years later, Nitish had made a humble return to the NDA to form a government in the state after ditching the RJD.
This new political equation is now evident across Bihar — both on the stage, and off it.
Nitish has shared platform with PM Modi all five times so far. When he is without the star presence, the JD(U) chief’s over 50 public meetings have generated hardly a buzz.
At Belaganj, Gaya, before the first phase of polls on April 11, barely 200 people waited to hear Nitish at a rally with LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan. The numbers swelled to about 3,000 after he landed — far from a respectable number for a sitting CM. “Yeh election Nitishji ka thode hi hai. Yeh Modiji ka hai. Nitishji to bas side character hain (This is not a Nitish Kumar election; it is Modi’s. Nitish is just a supporting character),” said Munna Kumar, a Belaganj resident.
The subtext in even the JD(U) chief’s talk about his government’s development efforts is Central schemes such as Ujjawala and Ayushman Bharat. And the voters are not impressed. “He has been around for over 13 years. Let us talk beyond infrastructure and electricity now,” said Shanker Singh at the CM’s public meeting in Purnia on April 11.
The JD(U) has been making much of the fact that it ensured that it was allocated the same number of seats as the BJP in Bihar — 17 each — underlining its status as an “equal partner”. The remaining seats are being fought by the LJP.
Sources in the JD(U), however, admit the fear is the BJP winning more seats than the JD(U). While the JD(U)’s list does not have many well-known faces, the BJP has fielded Union ministers Ravi Shankar Prasad, R K Singh, Ram Kripal Yadav, Ashwini Kumar Choubey and Giriraj Singh.
While the JD(U) hopes that its combined social base with the BJP would be enough this time, what this election would also test is the JD(U)’s ability to transfer votes to the BJP. The signals so far have not been good — from either the 2018 Araria Lok Sabha seat bypoll (the RJD defeated BJP) or the Jehanabad Assembly seat in the bypoll same year (the RJD defeated the JD-U).
In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, it was Nitish’s social engineering experiment that earned his party rich dividends. He had carved out a constituency among the Scheduled Castes, called Mahadalits, wooed EBCs, and created a caste-neutral constituency of women with 50 per cent reservation at the panchayat level. That social engineering faces a litmus test due to RLSP chief Upendra Kushwaha joining the Grand Alliance, ex-CM Jitan Ram Manjhi claiming a share of the Musahar votes, and newcomer Mukesh Sahni emerging as an EBC leader.
Hitting Nitish where it hurts, RJD leader and Leader of Opposition Tejashwi Yadav often calls the BJP the party’s “principal opponent”, and underlines the JD(U)’s 2014 dismal showing.
That leaves just one thing: Nitish’s once-bankable tag of ‘vikas purush’. If that is hard to sell now with Modi by his side, neither can Nitish protest loudly when the Centre is credited for the Bihar growth rate of 11.2 per cent, among the highest in the country.
A JD(U) leader admitted their trump card too was Modi. “We want his rally in all the constituencies we too are contesting. The PM is important not just because of his position but also his appeal.”