Till a few weeks ago, Tejashwi Yadav, who is leading the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Bihar's main opposition party, while his father, Lalu Yadav, is under arrest, was dismissed as an heirloom politician, not entirely indefensibly.
Tejashwi, 31, was seen as gentrified and entitled, not least because he was a minister in the Bihar government till 2018 when his party's alliance with Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister, collapsed under the weight of corruption charges against the Yadav family. Nitish Kumar logged out of his then-new collaboration with Lalu & Sons as well as the Congress and dived straight into the waiting arms of the BJP, with whom he had shared a nearly three-decade-long partnership.
While a minister in Nitish Kumar's government, Tejashwi did not flaunt the characteristics of either a grassroots politician (a species of whom father Lalu is an extraordinary specimen) or a dedicated one (he often skipped large and important meetings including those related to his own ministry). It was easy to infer the fact that Lalu, who had netted more seats than Nitish, gave his sons the comfort of coming and going as they pleased.
Tejashwi was named the chief of the family party after Lalu was arrested in March 2018. Critics within and outside the RJD circled in on his apparent inability to run a rough-and-ready political party.
Tejashwi Yadav was named the chief of the family party after Lalu Yadav was arrested in March 2018. Well, with this campaign, Tejashwi Yadav has blown up. He appears indefatigable, headlining as many as 12 rallies a day. Drawing the largest crowds in what was supposed to be a career-ending Bihar election for him. Crowds so large that both Nitish Kumar's party and the BJP have been forced to comment on their scale which they attribute to curiosity among voters about a new entrant. Did Lalu not elicit this sort of response, they have asked, and did it not end with Nitish winning anyway? Privately, they have been disconcerted enough to ensure that maximum efforts were made in arranging crowds for the joint rally yesterday of the Prime Minister and Nitish Kumar (it was the first Bihar gathering addressed in person by the PM).
In a self-referential nod, Tejashwi said to NDTV earlier this week, if the other side really believes "I am inexperienced and immature, why do they assign their top leaders to trail me with choppers and campaign in the same areas?" He knows he is now the big threat in what appeared initially to be a totally one-sided election.
Opinion polls largely show an easy win for the Nitish-BJP combo, but at least one also shows Tejashwi as a close second choice to Nitish for Chief Minister. Like his father, Lalu, Tejashwi has got under Nitish's skin; the Chief Minister has snapped often enough at rallies this week at small groups who have shown up and chanted support for either Lalu or the RJD to be scrutinised for a case of nerves.
After tucking into a breakfast made by mother Rabri Devi (who has also in the past served as Chief Minister), Tejashwi repeats like an incantation his viral phrase "Nitish Kumar thak gaye hain (Nitish Kumar is tired)." To his supporters across the state, Tejashwi declares this both to proclaim Nitish, at 69, is past his sell-by date and that his complacency from years of being in charge of the state motivated him to do nothing to help migrants when the lockdown was declared, plunging lakhs of Biharis into unemployment and no place to go but home.
Nitish, who has traditionally emphasised issues in his campaigns, now makes personal attacks to respond to Tejashwi's charges, creating the impression that it is the younger leader who is setting the rules of the game. To this observer, it is easy to spot the pride of the comeback for the young politician who was serially written off; the BJP IT cell derided him by designating him "Bihar ka Pappu" to equate him with another favourite target who they describe as an incompetent dynast, Rahul Gandhi.
Tejashwi has a lot to prove and his own recent record is hardly glorious - when the migrants began their long trek home from cities like Delhi and Mumbai, he was not among them, was visible only on Twitter, reportedly operating out of the family farmhouse in Delhi. But like his father and unlike Rahul Gandhi, he has an instinct for catchy slogans and a quick connect with voters. In particular, at this time of economic distress, the youth seems ignited by his promise of making available 10 lakh government jobs. After questioning the affordability as well as the practicality of the offer, the BJP quickly said it would do better, committing to 19 lakh government jobs and then controversially pledging to provide free vaccines against Coronavirus for all of Bihar.
The personal popularity of the PM appears to be as solid as ever; the assumption is that it is the BJP who will serve as the tugboat, getting Nitish to shore at a time when an anti-incumbency sentiment is substantial.
The BJP has assured that even if it wins more seats than Nitish (his team is contesting one more than the BJP), it will not renege on the arrangement of him returning as Chief Minister rather than one of its own leaders. But it takes zero reading of any tea leaves to see what is at play. Chirag Paswan, the other Gen Next leader from Bihar who has come into in his own in this campaign, has vowed to defeat Nitish - or at least attempt his best to do so. Chirag is also an ally of the BJP. The advantage of his turning Nitish into Enemy Number One is lost on nobody. Chirag gives cover to the BJP to emerge as the party with the maximum seats. He eats into Nitish's votes. The BJP, for all its denials of this contrivance, has been insipid in its public chastening of Chirag, who is six years older than Tejashwi and also inherited his political standing from his father, Ram Vilas Paswan, who died recently.
Chirag's Bollywood career never took off but he is not devoid of flourish now, declaring that if you rip his chest open, it is the PM's face that will beam up at you. "I too am with him till my last breath," he has said, comparing his admiration of the PM to that held by his father. All this does the BJP the great favour of keeping Nitish guessing. Like with its other allies, the BJP now has the upper (and heavy) hand in this equation. It does not help that Chirag and Tejashwi are long-standing friends who initially bonded over cricket and now have a new common interest -- delighting in running rings around Kumar. The suspicion of a conspiracy against him has been dialled up so much that Nitish suspects the hand of aide-turned-foe Prashant Kishor, an election strategist. This has been denied by both Kishor and Chirag.
At his rallies, a hapless Kumar, seeking a fifth term, urges voters not to forget about the "jungle raj" that prevailed when Lalu Yadav was Chief Minister. It is uncertain if this has much effect. Voters seem to want an account of Kumar's 15 years, not Lalu-bashing.
So, we have two heirs to a political legacy trying to make good and a veteran Nitish who knows a thing or two about political survival as his toggling between allies has shown. And then there's the BJP, primed to show Nitish who's the boss. The bets are big.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.