Patna: The BJP may have picked Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to lead the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for the 2020 assembly polls in the state but there is growing concern within the party over Nitish’s image having taken a hit during the Covid-19 crisis.
There is also a growing belief in the BJP that Nitish may be losing his sheen. The chief minister, with a reputation for being efficient, has been accused of tardiness in tackling the Covid-19 crisis, particularly in not rescuing migrant labourers from the state stranded in various parts of the country.
In its virtual rally in the state Sunday, the BJP, despite denying that it had anything to do with the elections, did attempt to assuage the anger on the ground over what is being seen as the chief minister’s poor handling of the migrant crisis.
“This rally had nothing to do with assembly polls and was about the achievements of the central government. But since it’s an electron year, politics does come in,” Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi told ThePrint.
But Modi himself referred to the latest controversy sparked by a Bihar Police letter on 29 May, which insinuated that the massive influx of migrant workers may cause a law and order situation.
“Bihari labourers are not thieves and robbers. They work for their living,” Modi said during the virtual rally. Even Home Minister Amit Shah, who was the main speaker at the event, praised Bihari migrant labourers for their contribution to the development of other states.
The see-saw alliance
The goof-up by Bihar’s police department, which functions under CM Nitish Kumar who also holds the home portfolio, has obviously alarmed the BJP. It is also emblematic of the relationship that has seen its fair share of ups and downs.
The BJP and Nitish’s JD(U) have contested elections as allies for most part of the last two decades, barring the 2015 assembly polls when Nitish allied with the Lalu Prasad Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
But the BJP has always caved in to Nitish’s diktats ever since the 2005 assembly elections, when he positioned himself as a clean leader with an aptitude for governance, to the extent that it did not get Narendra Modi, the then Gujarat CM, to Bihar during the pre-2013 alliance.
Elections rallies would also be held jointly with Nitish not only dictating the agenda but also always being the star speaker. If Sunday’s virtual rally is any indication, all is not well within the alliance. Shah referred to Nitish only once during the rally.
The event has also made the JD(U) wary.
As Shah addressed the virtual rally in Bihar, Nitish held a video conference with his party leaders in several North Bihar districts such as Paschimi Champaran, Purvi Champaran, Seohar, Madhubani and Sitamarhi, all of which have a large migrant labour population.
Nitish emphasised the need for JD(U) workers to “expose the lies” being circulated by the opposition. “My priority is to bring relief to the poor masses. The opposition has no other work but to spread lies,” he remarked. He also rolled out details of the steps taken by his government for the migrant labourers and the marginal sections of society during the Covid-19 crisis.
On the face of it, both party leaders maintain that all is well.
“It was a BJP event and every party has the right to hold its event. We and the Bihar CM Nitish Kumar also use the digital platform to communicate,” JD(U) minister Shyam Rajak said. “But I am not aware of any joint campaign program. Perhaps that will be decided at a later stage.”
Privately, JD(U) leaders say that since assembly polls are approaching, the virtual rally should have been a joint affair. BJP leaders, however, point out that even Nitish has launched political steps such as demanding special status for Bihar without including the party.
BJP has sought to assure the JD(U) that joint campaigns will be held at a later stage. “This was not an election rally. Joint virtual rallies will be conducted later. It will be decided by the central leaders,” said BJP spokesperson Rajni Ranjan Patel.
JD(U) leaders, however, are not happy. “It (virtual rally) should have been done jointly as earlier. We NDA partners always launched election campaigns at joint rallies in Patna’s Gandhi Maidan,” said another JD(U) leader.
Brand Nitish not strong enough this time
While Nitish has always taken the lead in the relationship, the Covid-19 crisis may just give the BJP what it needs to dictate terms.
“Despite the plea of Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, Nitish Kumar had refused to allow trains from Delhi and Mumbai to come to Bihar in the month of March. We started getting hostile reactions from families of the migrant labourers and students of Kota (Rajasthan),” said a BJP MLA from Patna. “While the UP and Gujarat CMs and a few other states were rescuing their people, it was perceived that the Bihar government headed by Nitish Kumar did not care.”
Not surprisingly, both Amit Shah and Sushil Kumar Modi rattled out statistics on the steps taken for migrant labourers. There are an estimated 3 million migrant labourers who can play havoc for the NDA in assembly polls.
“We swept the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on the popularity of Narendra Modi. In the state elections, brand Nitish may not be strong enough,” remarked a senior BJP leader.
Whenever the JD(U) and the BJP have jointly fought polls, the BJP’s organisational strength has always helped NDA candidates. Since 2015, the party has also started making its presence felt in the state’s rural areas, apart from its traditional urban vote-bank.
The mega show on Sunday once again displayed its organisational ability — the party managed to set up LED screens at all 72,000 polling booths in Bihar.
The BJP is also anticipating that 2020 will be the last assembly polls in which Nitish will be contesting as the CM candidate. The party is now looking beyond Nitish and has been projecting its own new generation of politicians such as Nityanand Rai, Sanjay Jaiswal and Mangal Pandey as possible leaders to take over in the future.