Fractious contests mark Bihar polls

There have been reports from Bihar that a wedge is developing in the ‘Grand Secular Alliance’ with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and the RJD Chief Lalu Prasad Yadav differing on many issues. If the reported wedge further develops, both Nitish and Lalu are bound to be doomed with the forerunner in the coming assembly election – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – gaining the upper hand. Sources close to Nitish and Lalu, however, deny that there is a wedge and the reports to that effect have been circulated to mislead the people.

With Lalu no longer in contention for the chief minister’s post – given his conviction in a corruption case and the consequent disqualification from contesting any election – the only cause of friction could be the distribution of seats. This, too, has been settled with the allocation of seats each constituent will contest in the coming election to the state assembly. Distribution of seats is the most difficult exercise in any alliance, and this was the case in Bihar. But the complex situation was resolved after months of hard negotiations. Accordingly, Bihar’s ruling Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) will contest 100 seats each, leaving 40 for the Congress. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who announced the formation of an alliance, said the Nationalist Congress Party has been offered three seats, which it rejected. No seat has been set aside for the Samajwadi Party whose president Mulayam Singh Yadav had brokered peace between Nitish and Lalu Prasad and paved the way for the formation of the alliance to take on the BJP.

There is no overstating the importance of the Bihar election for Modi and the NDA government. Failure to win this election would bring into question BJP’s strategy of fielding Modi as its star campaigner everywhere. If BJP fails to win Bihar, the odds against it in non-Hindi speaking states such as Bengal and Tamil Nadu look insuperable. Therefore, if such a scenario were to occur, it will be fair to say the pro-BJP wave, which began with its Lok Sabha victory last year, has already flowed past its peak.  

The poll bugle in Bihar was sounded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently at ‘parivartan’ rally in Gaya. He said every state has an IAS or IPS officer from Bihar. But regrettably over 80 lakh students are forced to share just 25,000 engineering seats in Bihar. Squarely blaming the 25-year-rule of the RJD and JD(U) for this shabby state of affairs, Modi promised that a BJP-led government would rid the state or its ‘Bimaru’ (laggard) tag. The million dollar question is whether his promises still enjoy the credibility they did last year. The promising aspect of Modi’s rally was that it sidestepped questions of caste and religion and focused on development.

Nitish Kumar rebuttal to Modi’s attack was vehement. Why doesn’t Modi know that Bihar has already shed its ‘Bimaru’ tag? Far from still lagging the national growth rate, the state habitually outpaces it these days, he said. Taking a leaf out of Modi’s own book, Nitish tried to turn Modi’s pitch into an assault on Bihari pride.     

The Prime Minister has announced a Rs. 1.25 lakh crore package for the poll-bound state, declaring that this sum, together with Rs. 40,000 crore worth of ongoing projects, would “change the face of Bihar”. Given the BJP’s desperation to win the state, a big bang announcement was on the cards. Does Modi’s largesse sound as dramatic as it should? First, no timeline line has been announced for delivery of the package. Second, much of what has been promised may already be part of the plan outlays.

There is already a debate on the DNA issue. It all began when Modi felt that there was something wrong with Nitish Kumar’s DNA. It didn’t match the DNA of democracy, Modi had said at a political rally.  Moreover, he wondered if that was the reason why Bihar remains a ‘Bimaru’ state. Nitish then connected the dots and described Modi’s speech as an assault on Bihari pride. He started a “<g data-gr-id="61">shabd</g> <g data-gr-id="62">wapsi</g>” campaign to force Modi into retracting his comment, which will see 50 lakh people mail bits of their skin, hair and nail for DNA testing. Nitish has used Modi’s DNA remark as a rallying point, which would boost his claim to represent Bihari “Asmita”. In recent years, Nitish has been attempting to step out of the caste-centric atmosphere that has shaped electoral politics in Bihar and project a pattern centered on governance and regionalism.

Nitish is handicapped by the limited social base of his party. The chief minister has sought to draw upon his governance record to expand his mass appeal. He also invokes a picture of Bihar as a victim of the Centre’s economic policies to buttress his credentials as a leader, concerned about regional development and its cultural identity. The DNA campaign is meant to invest some emotion in this politics of regional pride.

(The views expressed are
 strictly personal.)
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