Has the NDA snatched victory from the jaws of defeat? Till 12 noon, the opposition Mahagathbandhan led by Tejashwi Yadav was rejoicing. Spokespersons of Tejashwi Yadav's RJD were on Cloud Nine and their workers were in a celebratory mood. The BJP and Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal United (JDU) leaders were very defensive and dejection coloured the faces of their supporters. But it all suddenly changed when the NDA raced ahead and surpassed the opposition alliance.
Initially, RJD leaders played it brave, but by 5 pm, it was clear that the battle was lost and the party's dreams of ruling again after 15 years were shattered. But another twist was waiting. By 8 pm, supporters of Tejashwi Yadav had another reason to be hopeful.
The gap seemed to narrow even though the NDA stayed ahead. But finally, the euphoria was short-lived. Tejashwi Yadav lost. He now has to wait for another five years to dream again.
But Tejashwi Yadav, despite the tragic failure, is the Man of the Moment. Till a month ago he was not taken seriously. It was a walkover for the NDA. The arithmetic was simple. In Bihar, whenever two of the three big parties have got together, they have won and formed the government.
Since the BJP and JDU were contesting together, the RJD was left to contest with smaller parties like Congress and Left parties. Mathematically, the Mahagathbandhan was on the wrong side of history.
The opposition alliance was also handicapped by the absence of its tallest leader, Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is serving time for corruption. The onus of leading the coalition fell on his younger son Tejashwi, 31. Political pundits were not willing to give him a chance.
It all changed in the second week of October. Tejashwi's rallies started grabbing headlines. His meetings were packed with enthusiastic supporters and many saw winds of change.
As the campaign progressed, three factors were visible on the ground. One, it was unanimously reported that there was very strong anti-incumbency against the NDA. Most surprisingly, Nitish Kumar, once the darling of the masses who enjoyed high approval ratings in the 2010 and 2015 assembly elections, was seen as a disliked figure. In the recent past, no other chief minister had faced so much public anger. He suddenly became a liability for the NDA.
Second, in contrast, Tejashwi struck many as the new political phenom. He was seen to be setting the agenda and the NDA came off as confused and defensive. When Tejashwi announced his promise of 10 lakh government jobs, it became the talking point of the campaign. NDA leaders did not know how to react.
BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi mocked him. But the party's central leaders realised the gravity of the announcement and promised job opportunities for 19 lakh people in Bihar.
Tejashwi's call for employment hit a chord with the people and changed the discourse of the election. He also showed rare courage by delinking his campaign from his much-maligned father. Lalu Prasad Yadav, the undisputed leader of Mandal politics, once the messiah of the backward castes and the marginalised in Bihar, was a forgotten leader in the Bihar Elections. It was a tough call. It was a huge gamble. This move could have angered RJD's social base, the MY (Muslim and Yadav) combination. Tejashwi's idea was to blunt the NDA's attacks on "Jungle Raj" - a reference to the high crime rate during 15 years of RJD rule. Tejashwi did not panic when he was called "Jungle Raj ka Yuvraj" by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He showed maturity beyond his years and it seemed to have paid off in the end.
Third, the NDA alliance looked fragile. Chirag Paswan's LJP revolted and refused to accept Nitish Kumar as the leader of the NDA in Bihar. It was rumoured during the campaign that the LJP was unleashed by the BJP to unsettle Nitish Kumar and damage the JDU in the election. Chirag Paswan declared in a rally that he will send Nitish Kumar to jail if he formed the government. It was also reported that there was no coordination on the ground between the workers of the JDU and the BJP. On the other hand, despite the intrinsic weakness of the Mahagathbandhan, it remarkably looked more solid, disciplined and cohesive than the NDA.
The NDA campaign, despite PM Modi's rallies, was lacklustre. Tejashwi was more aggressive and his success lay in the fact that he did not let Modi and Nitish Kumar set the agenda; rather they were reacting to his calls. This was remarkable for a young leader. He was up against two of the tallest leaders of contemporary politics. He was not intimidated. He was not in awe of them. He was assertive, he was aggressive, he was mindful of his conduct, and he did not lose his cool even when he was bombarded with personal attacks.
Tejashwi knew that to form the government, he and his party had to spread out. The traditional social base of the RJD, Yadav and Muslim, could not win him the state. To reach out to new voters, he tried to dispel the perception that it was only a party limited to two social categories. He said that the RJD was an A to Z party. In this election, RJD was no longer Lalu's party; it tried to cross the Rubicon. The RJD tried to be MY Plus. Like PM Modi in 2014. Modi succeeded because he was not only Hindutva, but Hindutva Plus.
Tejashwi should be given credit for reinventing the RJD and detaching it from its past. The RJD, long branded as a party of hoodlums and criminals, suddenly looked like a party which was trying to broadbase and go beyond sectarianism, talking about development. It was a pleasant surprise for political pundits. But was it enough to lead him to the Chief Minister's chair? It was not, certainly, but in the absence of his father Lalu Yadav, Tejashwi kept the flag flying. He did lose but he fought till the end.
He did lose but he fought valiantly and the next Chief Minister of Bihar has to watch out. Tejashwi is waiting in the wings.
(Ashutosh is a Delhi-based author and journalist.)
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