Till a few weeks ago, most observers had predicted the return of chief minister Nitish Kumar for a fourth term, even though he had been losing ground. The huge crowds turning up at the election rallies of Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Tejashwi Yadav, however, tell a different story. Even more than the crowds themselves — in Bihar, ominously, it’s as if there was no Covid-19 pandemic — it is the nature of their response that points to acertain mood in the state.
The response the 30-year-old Yadav is getting appears to be more than anti-incumbency disaffection towards the ruling Janata Dal (United)-BJP government. It could even point to akrosh, or anger — which is when people look more at who they want to throw out than who they want to bring in. In that context, Bihar 2020 is more about Nitish Kumar, less about Tejashwi Yadav.
That Kumar, who had once refused to share a stage with Narendra Modi — and had all along insisted on a parity of status between JD(U) and BJP in Bihar in successive polls, including the 2019 general elections — should now have to seek votes, in his own state, in Modi’s name shows he is not unaware of his weakening position. He went to the extent of saying that Modi would ensure that Bihar was developed if NDA came back to power.
The Prime Minister, too, focused on the achievements of the central, rather than the Bihar, government. Initially, BJP tried to distance itself from Kumar by campaigning with election posters showcasing only Modi’s photographs.
In 2014, when Modi came to power at the Centre with an absolute majority, most people in Bihar said that they would vote for Kumar in the 2015 assembly elections, and they did. Today, large sections say that Kumar must go. When a migrant worker from a village in Darbhanga district returned to Mumbai, he remarked, ‘Iss baar hamare yahan Nitish ko haraane ka thaan liya hai’ (This time, we are determined to defeat Nitish here), you make a mental note of it. For the speaker is a Brahmin, his village has no Yadavs or Kurmis, only ati pichhra (extreme backwards), dalits and Muslims.
If there is one word that sums up Kumar’s woes, it is: joblessness. The loss of livelihoods has only been exacerbated by Covid-19, which has fuelled popular resentment, particularly among the youth. The perceived casual response by the CM to the plight of returning migrant workers, and hardships during the recent floods, have not helped.
Yadav, who was quick to put his finger on the popular pulse, is the beneficiary. It helps to be the clear alternative on the other side. Even as Kumar attacks him for his inexperience, it is young people who are thronging to Yadav’s rallies. RJD’s core voters — Muslims and Yadavs — are coming out in large numbers. But there are two other categories that appear to be supporting Yadav — returned migrants and young voters, the former numbering around three million and mostly non-upper caste, and the latter comprising 15.5 lakh first-time voters.
But there is one category of voter that could come to Kumar’s rescue: women. They have benefited from his prohibition policy (even as it has spawned aparallel illicit liquor business) and from his government encouraging girls to pursue education. Women have been conspicuously silent, and absent, so far in the poll narrative.
Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) president Chirag Paswan, who has emerged as the proverbial joker in the Bihar pack, has helped to direct the popular anger towards Kumar. In the process, he has taken the heat off BJP. Chirag is part of the NDA in Delhi but not in Bihar. He swears by Modi and exhorts people to vote for BJP where there are no LJP candidates. LJP has fielded candidates only against JD(U).
It will be instructive to see whether BJP’s core voter — from upper castes and ‘most backward’ communities — vote for its ‘official’ partner JD(U), or for its ‘unofficial’ ally LJP, in 50% of the constituencies where the two parties are pitted against each other. Paswan may be a ploy to reduce the JD(U) tally. He could enable BJP to emerge with more seats than JD(U) and be in a position to lead the government, if numbers permit.
For the first time, economic issues have come to the fore, along with caste, in this election in Bihar. It is not about bijli-sadak-paani (electricity-roads-water), but about ‘rozi-roti’ (livelihoods) this time. If this resentment has a bearing on the November 10 results, it will certainly have implications beyond Bihar.