As you enter Sasaram from Arrah in Bihar, one Paswan after another tells you that they’re planning to vote for Laltain, the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s lantern symbol. They’re fed up with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, and want change.
What’s curious is that the Sasaram seat also has a candidate from the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), whose formidable founder Ram Vilas Paswan died a few weeks ago. “It’s not about caste, it’s about who can defeat Nitish,” Paswan voters say.
Some of them have been traditional supporters of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), but not all. On the drive here from Patna, as also in the interiors of Sasaram, many voters say they are willing to cross traditional caste lines this time because the main issue this election is: “Nitish has to go”.
Forget for a moment all the talk about caste and coalitions, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the internecine games between the parties. Forget the predictions and the psephology. Just an ear to the ground tells you of a singular chorus growing louder by the day: Nitish must go.
Vote Nitish out
This is not a Narendra Modi election, though the BJP campaign tells voters to vote on account of their faith in the Prime Minister. This is not a Rahul Gandhi election, though he’s doing his rallies. Caste remains important but this is not a caste election, because many voters say they don’t want to be blackmailed with the fear of Lalu Yadav’s ‘Jungle Raj’ anymore.
Tejashwi Yadav has managed to create some buzz around himself, and his campaign pitch is just right. But this is not a Tejaswhi election either: more people refer to his side as Laltain and Lalu than Tejashwi.
This is also not a Chirag Paswan election, though he’s won the hearts of the young with his rebellion, far beyond the votes he’s going to get. Chirag has lit the fire, he’s the catalyst, much more than Tejashwi, who opened up this election, assuring people that despite the BJP-JD(U) alliance, things may be possible after the result. The LJP’s candidates are attracting their caste vote, but it’s at the narrative level that Chirag has made a difference. You don’t meet any voter who says they’re unhappy with Nitish Kumar, but don’t have an option. Chirag has opened up a range of possibilities.
One voter we met spoke of Tejashwi and Chirag as if they were on the same side. They’re not. Chirag Paswan swears his allegiance to Modi, whereas Tejashwi is the face of anti-Modi aspirations. Yet the two young men appear to be on the same side, the side of the voters who want to give Nitish Kumar involuntary retirement.
Forget which ally is with which party. There are two sides this election: those who want Nitish Kumar to stay and those who want him to go. That’s the central polarisation. Those who want the chief minister to stay are feeling the heat.
Manjhi leader Jitan Ram Manjhi may be with Nitish Kumar these days, but Manjhi voters will tell you that they prefer Laltain and Lalu. Nitish Kumar’s big contribution to caste politics may have led to the extraction of lower OBCs from Lalu’s turf but you can meet Nonias, Kushwahas, Tantis and Prajapatis echoing the same sentiment: Nitish Kumar must go.
No more ‘Sushasan Babu’
Ironically, the strongest defenders of Nitish Kumar now are not the lower OBCs but the Modi-loving, Lalu-fearing upper castes. In a Brahmin basti in Sasaram, voters say they are voting for the NDA. They don’t say JD(U) or its symbol Teer, the arrow. They pretend it’s not about Nitish Kumar and they don’t name Modi. You’ll have to ask them about Nitish Kumar to hear apologetic one-liners such as, “Kaam to kiya hai (He has worked)”.
Those demanding change counter, “Kya kaam kiya hai? (What has he done?)” When you ask them what’s the biggest issue this election, they say Nitish Kumar.
These voters are like the old friend who stops liking you and can now only see faults in you. They attack one of Nitish Kumar’s main achievements this election, a scheme to make tap water reach every home. One voter rues, “Kisi ko jal mila toh nal nahi, jisko nal mila toh jal nahi. (Some got water but no tap, some got taps but no water).”
That’s uncharitable, because the scheme has seen great progress. But that’s how much people are vexed with Nitish Kumar. “What was the need to install overhead water tanks in Sasaram?” asks a shopkeeper in a rare instance of a voter complaining about getting something from the government. “In the remote hilly areas there was greater need for these. There they haven’t installed them.”
The sum of these arguments is that Nitish Kumar is no longer a leader who can command administrative efficiency. He can no longer call himself Sushasan Babu, Mr Good Governance.
You hear anger about corruption, from alleged embezzlement in the tap water scheme to bribes given for ration cards and food distribution, especially during the Covid lockdown. This is why Chirag Paswan is promising to put Nitish Kumar behind bars for corruption.
Anyone but Nitish
You hear a lot of resentment about the economic hardships caused by the lockdown. You hear people complaining about how Nitish Kumar focused on hardware — roads and electricity — but not software — education, health and jobs.
The word you hear the most is rozgar — jobs. How are people to buy the motorcycles to ply these roads if they don’t have jobs? How are they to buy the white goods to use electricity? Look at me, says a fruit seller, I’m selling fruits after a graduate degree.
The anger is highest amongst the youth, who have completely slipped out of Nitish Kumar’s hands. You can even find Modi-loving upper-caste youth who are willing to vote for Tejashwi Yadav or Chirag Paswan, just to see Nitish Kumar go home. These are people who haven’t seen Lalu’s ‘Jungle Raj’ days.
They’re just done with Nitish Kumar. “Ab ho gaye pandrah saal,” they say, 15 years are now over, as if that’s a cut-off limit of sorts. To them, Nitish Kumar comes across as a leader who takes the chief minister’s chair for granted, like personal property. “It’s not his father’s chair,” you hear often. “He’s become arrogant like a king.”
The resentment is strong enough that people don’t care who the next chief minister could be. Anyone will do.
Nitish Kumar’s big hope is that women voters will save him. But he’s disappointed them too, with a failed prohibition. Sunita Devi, an activist in Sasaram who led an agitation to demand prohibition, says the result has been mixed. “Men get their alcohol home delivered so there’s still drunken domestic violence, but less than before, not least because bootlegged alcohol is expensive,” she says. But that’s not enough for her to champion Nitish Kumar’s cause. “We suffered so much in the lockdown. Women were unable to feed their children. Men don’t have jobs. These things affect women too,” she says.
The name you hear the least is Modi, at least in places where the JD(U) and LJP are contesting. People blame all the economic distress, even inflation, on Nitish Kumar. Who knows how the numbers may stack up after the election, but Nitish Kumar is so unpopular now that if the BJP props him as chief minister one more time, it can only be at the cost of Modi’s standing among voters in Bihar.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.