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View: To win Bihar, NDA has to erase recent memories of hardships and revive older ones of Jungle Raj

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. In the months immediately after the outbreak of Covid-19, much was expected to change — from cleaner air to improved personal hygiene. Election campaigning, too, was expected to become more cautious. Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi’s prod in May to the Election Commission (EC) to shift over to online voting for the assembly elections was politically incorrect, as it would have excluded many voters. Nonetheless, it forced the political class to consider strategies to prevent these polls from becoming another Covid-welcoming public ‘festival’ by digitally reaching voters.

When EC called for polls, specific guidelines were issued for ‘political parties/contesting candidates’, listing what was allowed and impermissible. Action was to be taken against violators, under the Disaster Management Act 2005 and different Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections. However, It is not just the nature and style of campaigning that has not changed, but the character of discourse also remains the same.

The Spanish flu pandemic a century ago was part of India’s forgotten history. When recounted, it appeared incongruous that the most decisive turn to the Indian national movement was given amid the outbreak, through the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements between 1920 and 1922. Despite Mohandas Gandhi’s family being badly singed by the deadly flu, he led from the front, the Rowlatt Satyagraha onwards.

Politics and its players have their own logic in pursuing objectives, and this has not changed in a century. The 2020 Bihar elections are witnessing the anomalous spectacle of leaders, from government and opposition alike, encouraging the governed to participate in activities that, on other occasions, they dissuade them from — physical distancing and avoiding crowds.

The decision of political leaders to address public rallies that throw caution to the winds points to the limited and exclusive character of India’s digital footprint. No mistaking, this is old-style campaigning. Additionally, it is evident that the character of rhetoric remains stuck in the groove of the ‘old normal’. Claims of ‘work done’ stand in juxtaposition to fiscal-draining populist promises.

Jumping Ship

Oddly, there is virtual absence of reference to the last election of 2015. After all, it was fought with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at each other’s throats. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and allies, too, were in a tight embrace with the Janata Dal (United). To BJP’s promise to deliver a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, the selfproclaimed ‘Sushasan Babu’ Nitish Kumar had pledged to usher a ‘Sangh-mukt Bharat’.

This time, Kumar has swallowed his pride and seeks votes in Modi’s name — while announcing on Thursday that this will be his ‘last election’. Despite Lok Janshakti Party’s Chirag Paswan’s presence as spoiler, this underscores his desperation. Victory for NDA will be ‘due’ to Modi, and defeat shall ‘lie’ at the CM’s doorstep.

Within NDA, BJP is the ascendant party, while JD(U) appears to be in terminal decline. This may personally please Modi, but it comes tinged with anxiety. For, the contrasting anti-incumbent sentiment and enthusiasm at RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav’s rallies serves as a warning to BJP. Reflection of these in the verdict, even limitedly, would mark the return of an era of political backlash over livelihood concerns — which can’t be kept in check by raking ‘national’ issues, often the first step in polarising election campaigns in the past.

Consequently, Modi has laid adequate emphasis on personal necessities, and has not completely ‘nationalised’ his campaign speeches, although he couldn’t resist injecting the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ taglines before the find bend of campaigning to the consternation of many minority voters.

Surveys, disagreeing on what the verdict may be on November 10, unanimously point to Modi’s personal popularity remaining highest. Admirers, when confronted with dip in his support, contend that the people of Bihar are voting for a CM, not PM. But there have been instances in the past when Modi’s words were enough for a BJP victory. The burden of incumbency and untested impact of the pandemic is visible in speeches of NDA leaders, especially Modi’s. References to Bihar’s historical grandeur and constant reminders to ‘misrule’ under Lalu Prasad Yadav are pointers.

Rough Road Ahead

The Modi-Kumar combine’s endeavour is to erase people’s recent memories of hardships during lockdown and loss of jobs, and restore older memories. This is not an easy task. Large sections of young voters do not have memories of pre-2005 Bihar. History, paradoxically, is not on NDA’s side — since the late 1990s, Bihar voted a front in opposition to the one in power at the Centre.

Almost 80% of people in Bihar are estimated to not have a salaried job. Although many of them were dailywage-earners even before the pandemic, the numbers have swelled. Bihar was also among the states that witnessed the maximum number of migrant workers returning in dire circumstances, carrying back tales of agony and suffering. These personal woes are widely circulated, often with interpolations, making NDA’s task more difficult.

Views expressed are author’s own

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