It is all about Nitish Kumar in the Bihar election. With the X-factor of Chirag Paswan in play, it is no longer certain that Kumar’s JD (U) would secure more seats than ally BJP. If that be the case, there could be a big question mark over Nitish Kumar staying on as an ally of the BJP.
The X-factor in Bihar is likely to upset some of the calculations of pollsters. There is a gaining perception that Chirag Paswan is in the arena essentially to fix Nitish Kumar, incumbent chief minister and president of the Janata Dal (United), with the consent and support of the central leadership of the BJP. Sushil Modi, Deputy Chief Minister and leader of the BJP, said the other day in Patna that Chirag Paswan should accept Nitish Kumar as the chief ministerial candidate or “move out of the NDA”. Chirag has not accepted Kumar as chief ministerial candidate of JD(U)-BJP alliance, yet he remains part of the ruling National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. Lok Janshakti Party, now headed by Chirag following death of founder leader Ram Vilas Paswan, will put up candidates in many constituencies where JD(U) candidates are contesting.
JD(U)’s principal rival in the state, the RJD, is likely to support some of Chirag’s candidates. Till the time of writing this article no action has been taken by the BJP to remove Lok Janshakti Party from the NDA. On the contrary many BJP leaders have been nominated to contest the polls on LJP tickets, including Rajendra Singh, an RSS activist who had been counted among probable chief ministerial candidates in case BJP won a majority in the state assembly in 2015 when the party had contested the polls without the JD(U).
BJP has suspended its leaders who have accepted nomination as LJP candidates to contest the polls. The party has also urged the Election Commission of India to restrain LJP from using the name and picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the poll campaign. But all this would seem tokenism and hence hardly carry any weight.
The presence of LJP in the fray will work as a double-edged sword. It will not only dent the vote share of the JD(U) but it could also eat into the anti-BJP votes of the RJD-Congress-Left alliance to the advantage of BJP. The election in Bihar is being keenly watched not for which combination of political parties gets majority in the House of 243 members, but for which of the two partners sharing power in Bihar, namely the JD(U) and the BJP, gets more seats than the other. The BJP had won 53 seats in 2015 while Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) had bagged 71 seats contesting in alliance with RJD and Congress.
Nitish Kumar’s supporters have closed ranks ever since speculation started that there is a hidden attempt by the BJP to marginalise him. Opinion is divided among voters on Kumar’s rule for 15 years. Anti-incumbency is strong but, at the same time, people both in urban and rural Bihar agree that the power supply is vastly better today, that roads have been built. In Madhubani, a Brahmin priest told this writer, “In our region, Nitish Kumar is strong”. The statement might sound at variance with the presumption that the majority of the so-called upper castes in Bihar, namely Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars and Kayasthas, support only the BJP. The explanation for this is the hostility of these sections towards the RJD and Lalu Raj.
In this election the RJD is likely to be a major loser, in comparison with the 80 seats it won in 2015 to become the single largest party in the assembly. Lalu Yadav was the star campaigner. But this time around, Lalu is absent from the election scene as he is serving out a jail term in Ranchi. His son Tejasvi Yadav lacks the charisma of his father. It is politically unsound on Tejaswi’s part to declare himself as the chief ministerial candidate of the Opposition alliance.
Despite having an initial edge in the polls, the BJP may suffer because of a likely Covid effect on the pattern of voting this time. Upper caste voters, particularly women, are less likely to queue up at the polling station to cast their vote. On the other hand, women in rural Bihar belonging to Other Backward Castes, Dalits and Minorities along with their menfolk could turn out in strength. “Covid or no Covid, this festival of democracy is more important than the fear of virus” says a voter in Arrah.
(The author is a senior journalist in Delhi. Views expressed are personal)