The announcement of dates for elections to Bihar Assembly is going to accentuate the pitch in a state where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the two political heavyweights who are engaged in almost a direct contest, had already launched their campaigns. What with the announcement of a Rs 1.25 lakh crore ‘special package’ to the state by Modi and with the statement of Kumar that Rs 1.08 lakh crore of the ‘special package’ was actually a ‘repackage’ as that much amount had already been sanctioned by the various departments of the Centre in regular manner, the acrimony has only gone on increasing. Modi’s remark that there must be “something wrong with Kumar’s DNA” invited a reaction in the form of a Swabhimaan (Self respect) rally in Patna addressed by Kumar with Sonia Gandhi and Lalu Prasad, leaders of Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) which are fighting elections in alliance with JD(U). Kumar accused Modi for hurting not his pride but the collective pride of the Biharis. His party claimed to have sent the hair and nail samples of one lakh Biharis to the Prime Minister for DNA test.
Acerbic remarks have not stopped flying. While Modi and other NDA campaigners warned voters of not voting for the Kumar-led alliance as it would mean the return of Lalu’s ‘jungle raj’, the retort they received was that while their star campaigner Modi was a ‘hawabaaz’ (empty talker) their star campaigner Kumar was a ‘kamkaazi’ (doer). Beneath the exchange of snide remarks, however, the dynamics of caste was also working. Both the Kumar-led alliance and the NDA are fiercely engaged in devising tactics and projecting persons with the aim of aggregating caste votes for themselves or splitting the caste votes of the rival alliance. The Kumar-led alliance has pitched for an OBC federation reminding of the Mandal times, with the Congress contributing with its sections of upper caste, dalit and Muslim votes. The BJP is banking on upper caste and small traders base of the BJP to be buttressed by a section of OBCs and dalits with the appeal of leaders of NDA allies, Upendra Kushwaha, Ram Bilas Paswan and Jeetan Ram Manjhi.
On the top of it, however, is the question of the state’s development. The NDA is propagating that no development has taken place since Kumar broke away from the BJP in 2013 and that development can take place only under a NDA government under the national leadership of Modi. Curiously, NDA has not named a chief minister candidate, in spite of the fact that in this election they are pitted against the powerful persona of Kumar who has been accepted as the chief minister candidate by the alliance he leads. As a matter of the fact, the Congress had made it very clear to Lalu Prasad that it would join the alliance only if Nitish Kumar was to be projected as chief minister candidate. Lalu Prasad took time and made some remarks that fouled up the atmosphere, raising doubts whether the alliance would be unmade on the issue of chief minister candidate. However, Lalu accepted Kumar as chief minister candidate after a time and addressed a joint press conference and later a rally with him in Patna.
All said and done, Lalu was a liability for Nitish. After all, it was fighting his regime that he had won his first mandate. No wonder, the NDA is taking full advantage of the erosion in the image of Nitish owing to his alliance with Lalu. However, for Nitish the alliance became a necessity in order to fight the NDA, which was riding on the Modi wave. Kumar went for it in order to avoid division of votes among OBCs: after all together they had won a substantial vote even during the last Lok Sabha elections. With Congress coming into alliance, he could also hope to consolidate the vote of the religious minorities that form almost 14 per cent of the total electorate.
Above all, however, the vote will be on the issues of development. Bihar was turned around by Kumar whose administration has improved its development indices in infrastructure, electricity, education and other areas. He is known as a doer. His achievements as chief minister in a state everyone had given up on have earned him a respect in the eyes of the voters. No wonder, despite the liability of alliance with Lalu and anti-incumbency of two terms, every opinion poll is finding him as the most preferred choice as chief minister. But the opinion polls also show a large percentage of people unhappy and expecting better, which should favour the NDA. With campaigning at full pitch, the coming weeks would be interesting to watch for which way the voters are going to swing.