THE first bugle announcing the beginning of the battle for Bihar has been sounded: Nitish Kumar has been declared the chief minister candidate by the united front of the Janata Dal (U), Rashtriya Janata Dal, Congress, NCP and others for the Assembly elections later this year. These parties have come together with the objective of stopping the BJP coming to power in the political frontline state. They do pose a big challenge to the BJP, indeed. The fight is even more crucial as it is the state where the first revolt against Narendra Modi took place, with Nitish Kumar leading his party JD(U) out of the NDA on his being chosen the prime ministerial candidate by the BJP national executive. Narendra Modi has to prove that Biharis love him. He has to prove Nitish Kumar wrong. Although it is a state battle, the prestige of Prime Minister is involved.
As much as Narendra Modi’s the prestige of Nitish Kumar is at stake too. He broke away from the BJP midway during his second term (2010-15) which he had won in alliance with the BJP. He has to prove that he did the right thing. There could not be any dispute that the NDA had got an overwhelming second term in Bihar largely owing to Nitish Kumar’s huge popularity. He had turned round a state everybody had given up as ‘lost’. He had packed off mafia dons into prison and made travel and evenings safer for people. He had activated a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Using the terror of his own impeccable integrity he had instilled fear into corrupt cabinet colleagues and officers. He was seen as a wonder boy in Indian politics, and it was hardly surprising that many began to see him as a deserving candidate for prime minister. It was all going on well, and the BJP was happy playing the junior partner to his party in Bihar, until Modi was announced BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
Nitish Kumar’s image has taken some hits since he parted with the BJP. He had sought vote for his party during the last Lok Sabha elections as ‘wages for my service’. The voters did not respond to his seeking; they voted for Narendra Modi in most constituencies. He resigned, handing over his office to an anonymous party MLA Jitan Ram Manjhi. People were greatly disappointed with Manjhi’s performance and demands started being made by sections of people and party workers that Nitish Kumar take over the reins of the state again. He took over, but a lot of damage had been done. The second hit to his image came from the publicly aired reluctance of Lalu Prasad to accept him as chief minister candidate for the alliance. What had looked like a smooth reunion of the socialist splinters started looking like a wreck foretold. On Monday, Lalu relented at the intervention of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Rahul Gandhi and accepted Nitish Kumar as the alliance leader. But all the damage done to Nitish’s image would be hard to retrieve.
All surveys and media reports strongly point to Nitish Kumar still being the most popular choice as chief minister. But his popularity is not the same as it was in 2010. It was at its peak. The erosion in his popularity was caused by several factors: growing impatience of people with stalled or slow-progressing projects; inability to curb corruption, especially at the grassroots; loss of upper caste support with break with the BJP; and his grand compromise of coming together with Lalu Prasad who he had portrayed as the father of anarchy in Bihar. In spite of corruption not being in control or projects not being completed on schedule everywhere, Nitish Kumar remains the best choice as chief minister for the people. His biggest liability is what is now his biggest political asset: Lalu Prasad. Politically speaking, for Nitish Kumar, the choice between Narendra Modi and Lalu Prasad was like the choice between the devil and the deep sea. Given an option, Nitish Kumar would never have allied with Lalu. But he has no other option. He has to set up a coalition of castes and communities that are separately opposed to the BJP and could together strike the party down.
The BJP support base in Bihar is not wide. The second negative factor for the state BJP is fratricidal factionalism which has not allowed it to name a chief minister candidate. The party is most likely to go to polls with Narendra Modi as the mascot. The only danger is that it is a state election. Voters would like to know who is going to be the chief executive of the government they elect. They know it won’t be Modi. It is not going to be a Modi versus Nitish election but a Nitish versus ‘No BJP leader’ election. The advantage is going to be to Nitish.