You can’t fault Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for sounding like the conceited wrestler Salman Khan played in the 2016 movie Sultan: “Agar Sultan ko koi haraa sakta hai, toh woh khud Sultan hai” (if there’s someone who can defeat Sultan, it’s only Sultan).
Eight months ahead of the Bihar assembly election, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar looks well-ensconced, with ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) standing in total obeisance. The opposition is in disarray. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), in the absence of the jailed Lalu Prasad Yadav, looks rudderless, with Tejashwi Yadav looking very much like Rahul Gandhi of the Congress, vanishing from the scene for weeks every now and then.
Many opposition leaders and political parties are apprehensive of their electoral prospects with Tejashwi as their chief ministerial candidate; their loyalty is getting increasingly tenuous and may not withstand the right offer from the other side.
Tejashwi is drawing impressive crowds to his ‘berozgari yatra’, but he attracted huge crowds in his public meetings ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, too, in which the RJD drew a blank. The opposition was hoping to build on public apprehensions about the CAA and NPR and revive the demand for a caste census to rally the OBCs around, but Nitish Kumar de-fanged it by getting the state assembly to pass resolutions to this effect.
Arithmetically, too, Nitish Kumar looks unassailable. Let’s look at the performance of the two alliance partners in the assembly elections — February 2005, October 2005, 2010 and 2015 — since the formation of his Janata Dal (United) in 2003. We are not looking at their performance in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, given the predominance of the ‘Modi factor’. So, in the last four assembly elections, the JD(U)’s vote shares were: 14.55 per cent, 20.46 per cent, 22.58 percent and 16.83 percent.
The dip in the JD(U)’s vote share in the 2015 assembly election could probably be because the party contested on only 101 seats as part of the anti-BJP mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) — around 40 seats less than its usual quota as part of the NDA. The BJP’s vote shares in these four assembly elections were — 11 per cent, 15.65 per cent, 16.49 percent and 24 per cent.
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These figures tell us the story of a consistent rise and consolidation of both the JD(U)’s and the BJP’s vote banks. It’s all the more impressive because the BJP’s vote share of 24 per cent in the 2015 assembly election was despite the fact that its major ally, the JD(U), had jumped ship and joined the rival camp — the RJD and the Congress. But, as Home Minister Amit Shah often reminds us: Politics is not arithmetic; it’s chemistry.
A commonly held notion in Bihar is that the electoral chemistry for these two parties is perfect: 15 per cent upper castes with the BJP, and 29 per cent extremely backward classes (EBCs), 16 per cent Mahadalits and Dalits, and 3 per cent Kurmis with the JD(U). Add to it the chief minister’s personal popularity and the Bihar assembly election results look like a formality, especially when the loyal vote banks of the RJD and the Congress — the Yadavs and the Muslims — together constitute just about 30-31 per cent of Bihar’s population. Factors further debilitating the opposition are Tejashwi’s image as a non-serious politician, the shift of a section of Yadavs towards the BJP, and Nitish Kumar’s goodwill among Muslims. The Bihar assembly election starts looking like a waste of money and time.
That’s why Nitish Kumar must feel like Salman Khan of Sultan, who could not be defeated by anyone. There is a big question though: Has he got rusty after ruling Bihar for 15 years, just as the wrestler in the movie gathered girth in the waist and flab on the tummy in his later years? Mind you, in the movie, the wrestler got a gym trainer who put him back into shape for his last fight. Kumar’s trainer in 2015, election strategist Prashant Kishor, is no longer with him.
The anti-incumbency worry
Kumar’s image of a ‘vikas purush (man of development)’, someone who had saved Bihar from Lalu Yadav’s ‘jungle raj’, has lost much of its lustre. Official crime data may paint a rosy picture, but the increasing incidents of rape are reminiscent of the Lalu era. People acknowledge Kumar’s contributions when it comes to their traditional pain points — paani (water), bijli (electricity) and sadak (roads) — but add in the same breath that the CM is “not the same now”. There is a lot of talk about corruption at every level of the administration. Few industries have come up in Bihar. Unemployment has been growing. Bihar’s per capita income is less than half of the national average.
I called up a chemist in Rosera, someone I have kept in touch with through three elections, for his feedback. “Logon mein ab woh josh nahin hai. Paanch saal mein kuchh nahin kiya hai (People are not very enthusiastic. He hasn’t done anything in the past five years,” the chemist, an upper-caste BJP voter said. Asked if he would vote for Tejashwi Yadav if he was so disillusioned with Nitish Kumar, he said: “That’s the problem. He is Lalu Yadav’s son and people will never vote for that clan.”
That Tejashwi is not seen as an alternative may be reassuring for Nitish Kumar, but what may worry him is anti-incumbency — and a sense of ennui with a chief minister who has been in power for 15 years, barring a nine-month interregnum.
Another reason to worry is a possible chink in the loyalty of the EBCs and the Mahadalits, Kumar’s backbone. He had roped them in soon after coming to power in 2005, giving them reservation in three-tier panchayat bodies, education and jobs. He has announced aid worth Rs 10 lakh each to aspiring EBC entrepreneurs and cash rewards to EBC civil service aspirants after they clear the UPSC prelims.
But a section of them is on edge. Nitish Kumar’s strike against the sand mafia hit the construction sector, which provided employment to lakhs of people, mostly EBCs and Dalits/Mahadalits. Another section of them was hit by the prohibition policy. The RJD is trying to reach out to them now. EBCs head 14 district units of the RJD, compared to 12 headed by Yadavs.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, an overwhelming majority of the non-Yadav backward classes (including EBCs) and Scheduled Castes in Bihar had voted for the BJP-led NDA, according to the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey. That was despite the presence of leaders such as Mukesh Sahni (of fishermen community), Jitan Ram Manjhi (SC) and Upendra Kushwaha (Koeri) in the opposition grouping.
But that was an election for Narendra Modi as the prime minister. Does Nitish Kumar hold their absolute loyalty? Not certain. The JD(U) got 16 per cent votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha election; just about one-third of the EBCs/Mahadalits’ combined population. Its vote share in 2015 Bihar assembly election didn’t give any indication of such absolute loyalty. They are Modi fans, certainly. Would they vote en masse for Nitish Kumar as the NDA candidate now? Not necessarily.
And there lies Tejashwi’s hope. He might have taken a different message from Sultan: “Koi tumhe tab tak nahin hara sakta … jab tak tum khud se na haar jao (No one can defeat you…unless you lose to yourself)”.
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