Litmus test in Bihar: Can PM Modi rescue the election for Nitish Kumar?

Given the prevailing “Nitish fatigue”, it seems that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – Janata Dal (United) alliance is counting on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to rescue the Bihar election. The attempt is to divert attention from the 15-year incumbency being faced by the Nitish Kumar regime and convert the election into Modi vs. the rest.

His initial election rallies indicate that Prime Minister Modi is pressing forward with the theme of hyper-nationalism.  He began his rallies by invoking the “brave sons of Bihar”, those from the 16 Bihar Regiment who lost their lives in the India-China skirmish in the Galwan Valley in May. The Congress party on the other hand was condemned for demanding the restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status while “daring” to seek votes from the people of Bihar. “Isn’t it an insult to the sentiments of Bihar which sends its sons and daughters to the border to protect the country?” the prime minister asked. Rahul Gandhi predictably responded in the same vein, accusing the prime minister of disrespecting “the martyred jawans of Bihar” by lying about Chinese occupation of “1,200 sq km of (Indian) land”. 

Yet a realisation is sinking in that local issues could trump the ‘big’ national issues in Bihar. Tejashwi Yadav who leads the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-Congress and Left parties has kept his campaign singularly local -- talking about economic hardship during the pandemic, massive youth unemployment, lack of health infrastructure and the treatment of migrant workers. He set the tone by the promise of creating 1 million government jobs to which his opponents have been forced to promise 1.9 million jobs! Given Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s dismal economic record in the state and the prime minister’s penchant for off-the-cuff election promises or “jumlas”, the attempt to play catch-up lacks credibility. On social media angry youngsters can be seen asking about empty promises of creating 20 million jobs a year nationally, the record 23.9% fall in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and about India falling behind Bangladesh in per capita GDP in Modi’s regime. 

The crowds at RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav’s rallies are bigger and more enthused than those at BJP-JDU ones. Nitish Kumar in fact seems to be facing public hostility. It would normally be unthinkable that an incumbent chief minister’s election meeting could be disrupted. Four of his rallies have been disrupted so far with Nitish Kumar losing his temper with the hecklers. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) President Nitish Kumar during an election rally, in Sasaram. PTI
There is no doubt that in his early years, Nitish Kumar provided comparatively better governance than his bete noir, Lalu Yadav. However he is weighed down by anti-incumbency now. The roads he once built are now mostly in disrepair. He has been unable to create jobs as is evident from the high rate of migration from the state. Children who were three when he first assumed power are of voting age today and unemployed. They have not seen any other chief minister and dwelling on the “jungle raj” before his own ascendency makes little sense to them. 

What they see instead is that despite his three terms in office, Bihar remains at the bottom of the pile on human indicators. His government’s mishandling of the pandemic was noticed nationally. It initially blocked the return of migrant workers while adjoining Uttar Pradesh was sending buses to get the migrants home. The Opposition hits a raw nerve by claiming that Nitish Kumar was missing in action during the Covid19 crisis. The claim that with a 91% recovery rate Bihar could soon become India’s first corona-free state contradicts the BJP’s election promise of free corona vaccinations for Bihar. 

Personal attacks against opponents indicate that the ruling alliance is fighting on the back foot. BJP’s Union Minister and its snappish spokesperson, Ravishankar Prasad, has accused Tejashwi and Tej Pratap Yadav – of being “ashamed of their parents”, because of the absence of both former Chief Ministers from RJD’s election posters. The urbane Nitish Kumar has also stooped to innuendo by suggesting that Tejashwi has something to hide from his sojourn in Delhi after the RJD’s political debacle in the Lok Sabha elections. He has also jibed about the marital woes and impending divorce of Tejashwi’s brother Tej Pratap.

Another sign of desperate measures was the surprise Income Tax raid at the Congress election office. Although it yielded a meagre Rs. 10 lakhs in cash from a car parked outside the premises, it was played up and a notice served on the party. The Opposition pointed out that similar action was not taken against a BJP candidate in Raxaul from whom 22 kg of gold and 2.5 kg of silver were recovered.

What has further upset the ruling alliance’s electoral calculations is that the tacit encouragement to Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) by the BJP might boomerang. If it had hoped to reduce Nitish Kumar’s seats and retain the upper hand in the alliance, now the ruling alliance fears that it could fail to get a majority if the LJP is too successful. It has fielded 29 BJP rebels and two sitting JD (U) legislators as its candidates.

Political pundits claim that ultimately caste mathematics favours the BJP-JD (U) alliance and issues of governance will not decide the election. The BJP attracts the votes of Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars and some non-Yadav OBCs while the JD (U) has a base among the Kurmis, Kushwahas, maha-dalits and extremely backward classes. These two caste agglomerates, they claim, are sufficient to trump the Yadav-Muslim support base of the RJD. 

If that was indeed a settled equation then there should be no desperation to pitch Prime Minister Modi as the face of the election and not the incumbent chief minister, Nitish Kumar. Front-page newspaper ads with large photos of Prime Minister Modi invoke the trust that he enjoys with the slogan “BJP hai to bharosa hai”. The Bihar election, first during the pandemic, may well be the litmus test of such faith.

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