In Bihar, officially, the winner and loser(s) will be known on November 10 but it isn't really a case of sticking one's neck out to call the election - Nitish Kumar will return as Chief Minister for a fifth term, the result of a mutually beneficial relationship of his partnership with the BJP and the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The opposition alliance, which has declared as its presumptive Chief Minister 30-year-old Tejashwi Yadav and includes the Congress and the Left, has little traction. And if, till three weeks ago, the election seemed a done deal, some much-needed zing has been provided by Chirag Paswan, age 36.
His revolt against Nitish Kumar and the BJP, launched last week with the announcement that he will not remain part of their collaboration in Bihar, has energised the theory that he is the BJP's coiffed, six-foot-tall secret missile against Nitish Kumar. Chirag Paswan declared his party, the LJP, will not run against BJP candidates; instead, their full focus will be on taking on Nitish Kumar's contenders from the JDU. Chirag Paswan would eat into Nitish Kumar's votes, the BJP would win the most seats in the state and suddenly have the ability to decide whether it should stick to its commitment of returning Nitish Kumar to the office of Chief Minister.
Bihar BJP leaders are categorical in denying all of the above. But nobody is naive enough to believe that Chirag Paswan is not part of a tag team with the BJP. From Patna to Delhi, there were no tweets by any BJP leaders defending Nitish Kumar after Chirag Paswan said on Saturday that his would be a stand-alone effort in the election. The first statement denouncing his statements which included lavish criticism of Nitish Kumar's governance came nearly 50 hours later.
On Monday, a few hours before Nitish Kumar and the BJP were scheduled to address a joint preference confirming how many seats each of them would contest, BJP leaders who met the Chief Minister at his home found him irate enough to hint that he may not join them at the event. He was reassured that the BJP would unequivocally state that irrespective of the result, Nitish Kumar will be Chief Minister if their team wins. Disaster averted. The press conference took place, though it was delayed on account of the hurt feelings.
Bihar BJP leaders privately insinuate election strategist Prashant Kishor for instigating Chirag Paswan's radical move. For years, Prashant Kishor was a trusted Nitish Kumar aide, privileged with the status of a cabinet minister. But ten months ago,he was banished for criticising his mentor's avid support of the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act, flagged by critics as anti-Muslim. BJP sources say that the election slogans and ads of Chirag Paswan bear the distinct imprint of Prashant Kishor but sources close to the young politician say he has not met the strategist in two years and this is a convenient way for the BJP to deflect from itself any blame for Chirag Paswan's attack on Nitish Kumar.
For the last three months, the relationship between Nitish Kumar and the BJP has not been the definition of convivial. The Chief Minister, 69, felt the BJP's prolonged negotiations over how many seats it would be assigned was a telltale sign of its intention to gain the controlling stake.
Nitish Kumar's approach to partners has been like a hop-on hop-off bus. After a nearly 18-year alliance with the BJP, in 2015, he ditched it for Lalu Yadav and the Congress ahead of the state election. Sources in his team ruefully point out that despite Lalu Yadav being an ornery leader, the decision on seat-sharing and the list of candidates were announced at two consecutive press conferences with minimal fuss. In 2017, Nitish Kumar did a backsies to the BJP. Last year, for the general election, they followed the same template of 2015 - two joint press conferences declaring seat allocation and then names of candidates. This time around, tired of waiting for the BJP to finalise its names, the JDU went ahead on Wednesday to release its list of candidates. There would be no Happy Families joint appearance.
If Nitish Kumar has something to comfort him, or to make the slights, perceived or real, worth it, it is that the arithmetic and social chemistry of his alliance with the BJP remains intact on the ground. He may have a new B-team to contend with in Chirag Paswan but it isn't a real threat. The Paswan community forms 5 percent of the Dalit population. They will support Chirag Paswan, but the non-Paswan Dalit votebank, collectively the "Mahadalits", add upto 11 percent and they are likely to give Nitish Kumar and the BJP their fulsome support (Paswans are the dominant Dalit caste and the others resent their primacy). The BJP will draw the upper castes. And excluding the Yadavs, who back Lalu Yadav and his son, the Other Backward Castes like the Kurmis (Nitish Kumar's caste), Kushwahas and the EBCs (a group of over 40 castes known as the most backwards among backwards) will vote for Nitish Kumar and the BJP. Once supporters of Lalu Yadav, this group, amounting to 35 percent of the population, switched loyalty to Nitish Kumar after he empowered them by introducing reservation for them in village panchayats and other grassroots bodies.
On the other side, Tejashwi Yadav and the Congress will galvanise the Muslims, small sections of upper castes and the Yadavs.
Nitish Kumar flubbed the management of the migrants from Bihar who returned home when the lockdown was ordered; his handling of the Coronavirus crisis has been deeply flawed; and when the floods arrived, he was seen as a hands-off administrator. But his feedback from party workers is that he scores because the options to him are not seen as viable. With Lalu Yadav hospitalized in Ranchi (he was convicted in 2018 for corruption and then moved later to a hospital), his team is feeling the absence of its shrewdest and most charismatic player. This is the first assembly election, since 1980, where Lalu Yadav won't be campaigning.
There's also the more than 12,000 crores Nitish Kumar has spent over the last six months using direct cash transfers to put money into the accounts of the poor. Families received advance payments to buy school uniforms and cycles, scholarships, and to buy mid-day meals so that in the absence of functional schools, children were not deprived of free mid-day meals.
All this may help to keep voter anger in check. And then there's the huge draw of the PM whose popularity is off-the-charts. So while Chirag Paswan may be acting out in public and Nitish Kumar in private, it is the BJP whose beat is thumping. For the first time, it is contesting nearly the same number of seats as Nitish Kumar, proving its growing dominance in their arrangement.
(Manish Kumar is Executive Editor at NDTV)
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