Lonely lies the head that wears the crown. And nobody knows this better than Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who is fighting hard to retain his titles of Bihar’s Chanakya and Sushasan Babu in a State where politics runs deep, thriving on opportunism, self promotion and caste remains integral to the political discourse and electoral positioning.
Till yesterday, it was a given that 69 year-old Nitish would come back for his fourth term, but today it seems he will have to claw to retain his position with luck favouring him. And it is not anti-incumbency and alienation alone which is gnawing him, he seems to be ambushed by his own inventiveness wherein he is not only being shunned by foes but friends alike.
Undoubtedly, ally BJP continues to parrot the JD(U) Chief is the NDA’s Chief Ministerial choice, yet three things give the supposed bonhomie away. One, Modi has till date not addressed any joint rallies with Nitish, two, there is no Nitish on Modi’s posters and the Prime Minister has per se neither reproached nor distanced himself from LJP’s Chirag Paswan pledging his ‘heart’ to Modi even as he puts up candidates against Nitish.
Perhaps the reason why savvy gentleman Nitish is rattled and beginning to lose his cool at rallies, wondering whether the BJP will stick to its pledge or dump him if the JD(U)’s electoral numbers don’t add up. Given that there doesn’t seem to be much love between the two wary allies. His personalised attacks on Lalu and Tejashawi are uncharacteristic of his unflappable demeanour.
Recall, in 2013 the JD(U) ended its 17 year alliance as part of the NDA when Modi was declared the Prime Ministerial candidate. Earlier too, Nitish had cancelled a dinner for the BJP because poster showed then-Gujarat Chief Minister Modi’s largesse for the Kosi flood-affected. Only to reunite in 2017 when Nitish walked out of RJD-Congress’s Mahagadhbandhan and formed the Government with BJP.
Besides after 15 years in the Chief Ministerial gaddi this time round Nitish seems to receiving end who has lost contact with the ordinary voter, not the master of ceremonies. Indeed a spectacular slide from being feted as the champion of Bihar’s Turnaround Success to being dubbed the Old Guard who is encumbering Gen Next to rewrite a new script.
Forgotten is that the JD(U) restored law and order, empowered women and Mahadalits, built roads, bridges, provided electricity, water and cycles to girls. Succinctly, issues Nitish has already encashed in three polls. With a less than 20% vote share the Scheduled and backward castes discontent is now born of insufficient empowerment.
There is a clamour for badlav, one that many perceive Nitish is incapable of delivering. Specially, against the backdrop of the migrant crisis that has sharpened economic distress and pandemic handling. Having raised aspirational levels, Sushasan Babu seems to be faltering in engaging and addressing youngsters’ ambitions and key issues like rozgar. Bihar is falling behind in the rafter of development, is the common refrain.
But all is not lost. Fear of return of Lalu “Jungle raj by his Yuvraj” Tejashwi along-with the TINA factor (there is no alternative) has tempered criticism against Nitish. Alongside parivartan, one also needs a modicum of trust and reassurance which Nitish embodies. Ironically, the section which seems to be holding fast to him are mostly upper castes whose loyalty lies with Modi.
The BJP with its well-oiled Party machinery and backed by the organization’s powerhouse RSS is upbeat. On two scores. First, Nitish’s popularity is on the wane. Pollsters point the JD(U) Chief’s ratings to be hovering between 35%-40% which is the right time for the Saffronites to strike and explore a future without him dragging them down.
Secondly, over the last 15 years when Mandal politics steered the State, the BJP used Nitish to gain legitimacy in the Mandal ecosystem but now Modi-Shah realize he has outlived his utility for the Hindutva brigade. It comes as no surprise that the BJP continues to play footsie with LJP’s Chirag by using him to target JD(U) candidates. Keen to acquire power it on its own steam it hopes for a bigger tally than JD(U).
The RJD’s 31-year-old 10th class dropout-cricketer-turned neta Tejashwi, leader of the Opposition Mahagadbandhan comprising Congress, CPI, CPM, and some smaller Parties is defying pre-poll odds and putting up a stiff contest, despite his detractors saying he lacks political shrewdness. Issues raised by him seem to be setting the agenda of debate. Ambitious and articulate the RJD heir has not only vanquished his siblings in the family turf war but also learned some political tricks from his father and has got under Nitish’s skin.
Sensing an opportunity, he is quickly moving to neutralise his opponents by connecting with the masses specially the four crores young voters by being jocular, voicing catchy slogans and speaking in local dialect. “This election is being fought on ‘kamai, padhai and dawai”, he asserts. His promise of 10 lakh jobs seems to have caught the imagination of the youth who throng to his rallies though he has nothing much to show as his achievements as Dy Chief Minister from 2015-17.
However, he faces numerous challenges and has a lot to prove. His biggest encumbrance is the jungle raj tag and anarchy appended to the RJD. His absence from Bihar during the migrant crisis is embarrassing. Consequently, he is trying to create a new social base of job seekers alongside Lalu’s MY social base and gain their confidence.
Ram Vilas Paswan’s death may have taken the sting out of the attack his 37-year old Bollywood one-film star son and head of the LJP Chirag Paswan has unleashed against Nitish. Yet he seems to have come into his own and is at best, making a play at defeating Nitish on the coattails of Dalits who comprise over 17% of the population and could be one of the game-changers. Chirag I also giving cover to the BJP to emerge with the maximum seats by eating into JD(U) votes.
Under pressure from the JD(U), the BJP has distanced itself from LJP’s dubious game of backing its candidates while fielding its own against JD(U). It has tepidly publicly chastised Chirag, even though its Party workers are hooting for LJP candidates thereby confusing voters by keeping one foot in the NDA and another out.
Will this election be Bihar’s Chanakya’s nemesis? Will the Saffron lotus finally bloom in Bihar? Will young Tejashwi and Chirag be able to fill the big shoes of their fathers Lalu and Paswan? Both are long standing friends and are now busy running rings around Nitish even as BJP keeps Nitish on tenderhooks.
Pertinently, at the root of all, is the State’s caste politics whereby its dynamics will be the underpinning of electoral choices of Parties, drawing both from old positions and new calculations tracing back to the Mandal politics of the late-1980s and the ensuing social-engineering experiments.
While Nitish’s politics is anchored on its political appeal towards the most backward classes (a loose term for non-Yadav OBCs) and Mahadalits, Tejashawi is banking on the Yadav-Muslim combine and Chirag on Paswans. The BJP, on its upper caste base now stronger than before.
Undoubtedly, the Bihar election could well be the harbinger of change, nationally. With half of India’s population in the 18-35 age bracket the aspirational levels of a young democracy has changed dramatically. No longer are old clichés, Styrofoam promises and histrionics palatable. All demand an Obama-like “Yes we can” politics. However it will not be roses all the way. In an age of 24/7 digital world of post-truth and post-ideology politicking, there is the stirrings of new politics. An intent generation is unlikely to remain content in a scenario where a new incumbent Chief Minister create jobs or contain rural distress. In sum, the Bihar poll has ignited a new chingari where everything is up in the air and thrown up new possibilities.