Given Nitish’s track record as an accomplished trapeze artist who can dump the BJP overnight and embrace the RJD, he can leave the saffron party stranded should he fail to get the chief ministerial crown for the fourth time, notes Virendra Kapoor.
IMAGE: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar at an election meeting in Darbhanga district, October 25, 2020. Photograph: PTI Photo
The political storm over the BJP offer of free Covid vaccine made in its manifesto for the Bihar assembly poll is rather overblown.
Rival parties in the fray were free to make the same offer should they be voted to power.
As former officials of the Election Commission said the BJP offer does not violate the Model Code of Conduct.
It may be unfair that the central government led by the BJP might favour states where it is in power in distribution of the vaccine, but there is no illegality attached in this.
Of course, the party can make good the offer of free vaccines only in case voted back to power.
Given that Bihar goes to the polls under the shadow of the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic which has so far claimed close to one lakh lives, and the virus is still raging, the free vaccine offer might influence a section of the electorate.
However most voters seem to be flouting the basic precautions such as masks, social distancing, hand-washing etc.
This is evident at election rallies in the state.
Neither social distancing nor masks are seen in the crowds tightly packed in maidans and public squares, listening aptly to the leaders making the usual tall promises about millions of jobs, free education, law and order et al, indeed every public good that Biharis have mostly been denied by successive generations of leaders.
Still, politics runs deep in the veins of Biharis.
They cannot be weaned away from the popular pastime.
Regardless of caste or class, religion or region, voters in the state are unlikely to be deterred by the fear of the coronavirus.
This is testified by the large and enthusiastic crowds at the election rallies addressed by leaders of competing parties.
Contrary to the initial impression, the Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and Laloo Yadav’s chosen political legatee, Tejashwi Yadav, is attracting sizable crowds on the campaign tour.
And it seems to be a receptive audience, nodding in approval to his criticism of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, and listening aptly to his promise of lakhs of new jobs.
The Yadav-Muslim core base of Laloo Yadav, who is cooling his heels in prison following conviction in multiple fodder scam cases, is very much intact.
Should this hold on the polling day, and given the fragmentation of the anti-MY caste calculus of the ruling Janata Dal-U-BJP, the RJD could spring a surprise.
Two weeks into the campaign, observers seem to be revising the earlier assessment of an easy win for the ruling combine.
No, it would not be a walkover for the Nitish Kumar-led NDA.
Indeed, ‘Sushasan Babu‘ of the previous elections is now quite unpopular even among traditional JD-U-BJP voters.
Restoring a modicum of law and order after Laloo Yadav’s ‘jungle raj‘ and offering schoolgirls free cycles, linking villages with pucca roads, providing drinking water and electricity to villages were duly encashed in the previous elections.
Now, it is the lack of jobs and other economic opportunities.
Besides, fifteen years in the chief ministerial ‘gaddi‘ are bound to generate a lot of incumbency which Nitish finds hard to neutralise.
He seems to have lost his contact with the ordinary voter.
At physical rallies in certain places he has had to contend with small crowds, some of them restive who seemed to have come with the objective of barracking him.
However, all is not bleak for Nitish.
Ram Vilas Paswan’s death may have taken the sting out of the attack his son and head of the Lok Janshakti Party, Chirag Paswan, had unleashed against Nitish Kumar.
Under pressure from the JD-U, the BJP leadership has had to distance itself from the LJP’s duplicitous game of backing the BJP candidates while fielding its own against those from the JD-U.
Even LJP voters are confused with this approach of Chirag keeping one foot in the ruling NDA camp and another out.
Since he has ruled out teaming up with the Tejashwi Yadav-led Mahagathbandhan, at the end of the poll Chirag may find himself marginalised, especially if the JD-U-BJP combine romp home comfortably.
In that case, Nitish will veto the BJP accommodating Chirag Paswan.
IMAGE: RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav addresses an election rally in Nalanda. Photograph: ANI Photo
Much is being made of Brand Modi. This may well be overdone.
Ordinary voters are fully aware that the election is for a government in Patna, not in New Delhi.
It is Nitish Kumar to be held to account, not Modi.
Rural folks acknowledge Modi to be the favourite for prime ministership, but seem to be cold to the idea of retaining Nitish as chief minister for yet another term.
This is true specially in the traditional Yadav strongholds where the RJD candidates appear to be doing well.
Of all the parties in the fray, the BJP is most well-organised and well-funded, going into the polls with confidence.
Its upper caste base is intact, now stronger than before.
The hullaballoo over Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has further consolidated its grip on the sizable Rajput vote.
The alliance with Mukesh Sahni’sVikassheel Insaan Party, which was allotted 11 seats by the BJP from its quota can further boost its overall seat tally.
Regardless of the conspiracy theory about the BJP wanting to replace Nitish as chief minister with its own candidate should the JD-U win fewer seats than itself, and keeping Chirag Paswan’s LJP as a back-up in case the combine falls short of the half-way mark, senior party leaders for the record have ruled out that anyone else other than Nitish would be chief minister.
As of now, the BJP lacks a pan-Bihar leader.
Yes, the BJP is keen to see its own man as chief minister given that aside from Bihar the party heads governments in all major Hindi belt states.
But that would crucially depend on its tally of seats.
An extraordinarily good performance might make Nitish jittery even if the BJP most generously were to offer to retain him as chief minister.
It is in this context that speculation about Nitish doing yet another somersault after the poll has gained some currency.
According to this line of speculation, Nitish can replicate the Maharashtra model post-the election, dumping the BJP, which cannot be entirely ruled out since he had done that earlier, and forming a government with the RJD.
A Mahagathbandhan government with Nitish as chief minister will not only force the BJP to sit in the Opposition, but oblige it to ponder whether in its quest for invincibility lie the seeds of its decline.
For not unlike the once monolithic Congress when everyone from the BJP to the Communists and all others in between had teamed up to defeat the Grand Old Party, Modi-Shah’s BJP too is beginning to evoke fear.
With the exit of the Akalis from the NDA, and earlier of the Shiv Sena, the BJP even in its hour of victory might begin to feel lonely at the top.
The senior BJP leadership ought to ponder why it is beginning to repel allies and other parties.
Instead of inspiring trust, smaller parties feel a sense of unease, even fear that the saffron party is becoming a threat to their existence.
Meanwhile a hung verdict in Bihar can lead to fresh alignments.
Given Nitish’s track record as an accomplished trapeze artist who can dump the BJP overnight and embrace the RJD, he can leave the saffron party stranded should he fail to get the chief ministerial crown for the fourth time.
There are no permanent friends and enemies in Indian politics, not after the Shiv Sena began to sup with the Congress and the NCP.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com