Prime Minister Narendra Modi had gone back to Delhi from Bihar after addressing his fourth parivartan rally at Bhagalpur, where weavers have moved away to other work and silk has given way to synthetic.
In Patna, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressed the media to respond to the points made by Modi at the September 1 rally, something that has become the practice ahead of the five-phase elections that will be held from October 12 to November 5 for the 243 seat-Bihar legislative assembly.
“Mein, mein, mein. Maine yeh kiya, maine woh kiya. Wahan phone kiya [I, I, I. I did this, I did that. I telephoned...]. He talks of cooperative federalism, but is full of himself,” said Nitish, accusing Modi of indulging in Goebbelsian talk by telling the same lie a thousand times. “We brought power to every village. Every family saw Modi on TV and the kids said, ‘Mummy, Mummy, Abki Baar Modi Sarkar’,” said Nitish. “He is the prime minister of India now, so people will come from all over the country for his rally. There were 100 vehicles from Jharkhand for the rally at Bhagalpur.”
Modi’s number crunching on the Bihar package was lost in the din of the public cheer. What, however, lingered were words that were spoken in, what many would say, bad taste. Modi referred to the Nitish Kumar-led swabhiman rally of the grand alliance comprising the Janata Dal (United), the Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Samajwadi Party that has since walked out. They have performed tilanjali (the last rites) of the legacy of Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia; the people of Bihar should perform the last rites of these people, said Modi.
Nobody thought Modi’s “Congress mukt Bharat” was in bad taste. However, his remarks about the formation of the grand alliance as an ultimate denouncement of the socialist icons didn’t go down well in certain sections. All is fair in love and war, so the nastiness was no surprise in a battle that is possibly more important and challenging for Modi than his own election to the Lok Sabha for the first time in May 2014.
Nitish was Bihar’s original development man, a son of the soil, and the lone person who dared to take on Modi. Also, Bihar is the first state that is going to the polls after the BJP was humbled—nay humiliated—in Delhi. With just three out of 70 assembly seats in the BJP’s kitty, the joke in the capital was that its elected leaders needed no more than an auto-rickshaw to reach the Delhi Vidhan Sabha. The BJP may not say so, but Bihar has become the battleground for Modi’s swabhiman as much as Nitish’s.
What appears to be a straight fight between the two leaders is in fact a fight between two coalitions—the National Democratic Alliance and the grand alliance—and a third front in the making, comprising the Nationalist Congress Party and the SP, for now. There is jostling among the NDA’s partners—the Lok Janshakti Party led by Ram Vilas Paswan, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party led by Upendra Kushwaha and the Hindustani Awami Morcha led by former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi. The grumbling was no longer a whisper when Chirag Paswan, MP and leader of the LJP, said he was “shocked” at the way the seat sharing was arrived at and that his party deserved more seats than its rival, the HAM.
Simultaneously, sparring of sorts is on in the grand alliance between the RJD and the Congress. There is a lot of suspense over whether RJD leader Lalu Prasad, undoubtedly a big gun in Bihar, will campaign for the Congress candidates and whether Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi will do likewise for the RJD nominees.
And the lead players, the BJP and the JD(U), are not out of the fight. In fact, neither is happy with the cobbling up it has had to do. Nitish confessed that he did it under national compulsion. The BJP considers itself the “architect of coalition politics”. But the ticket sharing showed how unhappy it is with the alliance.
Add to the battle lineup party hopper Pappu Yadav—the RJD member of Parliament from Madhepura—who has floated a new political outfit, the Jan Adhikar Party, and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen led by Asaduddin Owaisi, the MP from Hyderabad. While Pappu Yadav is trying to strengthen the ‘third front’, Owaisi allegedly is working to help the BJP by dividing the Muslim votes.
Neither the BJP nor the JD(U) is sure things will remain as cosy as the public show of it. This, sources say, is a reason why the BJP has allocated itself 160 seats, in the hope of winning a simply majority of 122 by itself.
In fact, the party campaign's main theme is the same-party government at the Centre and the state, which would help the state's development.
In Purnea, the BJP office is getting spruced up to receive the ticket seekers. “We have formed the booth-level committees and created awareness. People want change. They are angry with the JD(U) for breaking the ‘dharma of coalition’, and there is goonda raj from the day they broke away from us,” said Tantan Thakur, the BJP’s in charge of the Baisi assembly constitunency in Purnea.
Mithilesh Kumar, the BJP’s organising secretary in Purnea, says that in the Seemanchal region—comprising the four districts of Araria, Purnea, Kishanganj and Katihar—Hindus are leaving their home and land to settle down in Hindu-dominated towns outside. “Half this region is now full of Bangladeshi refugees,” he said. “In Seemanchal, Muslims from outside come, vote and go back. It is almost a mini Pakistan.”
The Congress office in Araria is abuzz with activity. “We have land, office and office-bearers in all the constituencies,” said Abiddur Rahman, district vice president. The party, however, has only four MLAs in the current assembly. “The Congress fall here was because of the central leadership’s wrong choice of candidates; grassroots people were neglected,” said Pawan Lal Mandal, a Congress leader. Mandal claimed that his name was recommended from the district for the Sikti constituency in 2010, but an outsider brought in from another party got the ticket. His supporters got angry and defeated the Congress by voting for the BJP candidate, said Mandal, who is trying his luck a second time in this election. “I can beat Paswan’s 1977 record [Paswan won from Hajipur with a margin of 4.24 lakh votes],” said Mandal, who is so confident of his victory that he said he would quit politics if proven otherwise.
However, Modi is being seen as the man who could do the trick for the BJP. “The people like him, his charisma. And, we want our own PM and CM,” said Tarkishore Prasad, an MLA from Katihar. Prasad said that though Nitish was chief minister post the 2010 elections, the mandate was meant for the NDA. “The work was done on the basis of a Common Minimum Programme. The health ministry, the finance ministry and the roadways were with us, and the achievements were all in these departments,” he said. “So we will claim the development, it is entirely our contribution.”
Sanjay Mayukh, vice president of the BJP’s Bihar unit and member of the Bihar legislative council, also believes that the credit for the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government’s good performance goes to the BJP. “As long as Sushil Modi was the finance minister of Bihar, it was No 2 in the country in terms of the GDP,” he said. “People would compare the roads with what we had when Lalu was chief minister. The World Health Organization recognised the good work at the primary health centres. Now Nitish talks of Medanta [Medicity which will come up in Kankerbagh], forgetting that there was a medicines scam after he parted ways with us. We stand for positive, development-oriented politics.”
Though the BJP leaders don’t admit it, Bihar is abuzz with talk that Pappu Yadav is hopping from one constituency to another, mobilising support for his Yadav candidates, at the behest of the BJP. He may be able to split the Yadav votes that could otherwise go to the RJD.
If there was anger in the Grand Alliance over Nitish being named as the chief ministerial candidate, nobody showed it. In the BJP camp, however, the leaders are not worried about who the chief ministerial candidate would be. They are more happy about the fact that Modi is taking personal interest in the state. “The results will have an impact on the elections in Uttar Pradesh next year, and if we win both, it will increase our strength in the Rajya Sabha," said a BJP leader.
‘Package’ is the most bandied about word in Bihar today. Numbers come up as if the state were an auction house.While Modi turned a deaf ear to Nitish’s plea for a package or special status for Bihar, he himself announced a package at Ara, where he had gone to lay the foundation stone for a dozen national highway projects, rather dramatically. “The UPA government sanctioned only Rs.1,200 crore, of which Rs.1,000 crore was left over from Atalji’s [Bihari Vajpayee] time,” he said. “Should I sanction Rs.50,000 crore? Should I sanction Rs.60,000 crore? Should I sanction Rs.80,000 crore?” Finally, he announced a package of Rs.1.25 lakh crore.
Nitish rubbished it as repackaged old schemes and old funds, and went on to announce a package of Rs.2.7 lakh crore. At his next rally, Modi said the money for the package came from central funds and attacked Nitish for not talking about the Rs.3.76 lakh crore that would come to the state over the next five years, courtesy the 14th Finance Commission recommendations. “Will the Rs.1.06 lakh crore he is silent on be spent on fodder?” asked Modi.
Binod Aggarwal, a socialite and entrepreneur, lives near the airport ground where Modi addressed the rally. “There was unexpected crowd, but most seem to have come to have a look at the prime minister or to be seen on the television,” he said. “The common man is not interested in figures. Those who understand the numbers will go out for a picnic on poll day. He should have discussed bridges and roads.”
Vinay Kumar Singh, MLA from Sonepur, said there was a general tilt towards the BJP because while the other parties had been given a chance, the BJP on its own had never ruled Bihar. “Nitish leaving the NDA, which got the mandate in 2010, is seen as vishwasghat [treachery],” he said. “Lalu’s is a scarred face. So people want change. That is what we are promising them.”
In Chapra, the JD(U) workers are collecting samples for DNA testing, organising them in cartons and loading them into trucks to be sent off to the prime minister’s residence. The cartons have postcards with the following message on it: “I am proud to be a Bihari. There is nothing bad about my DNA; if you have any doubt, have it checked.” Modi’s comment that there was something wrong with Nitish’s political DNA has provoked the mass action. “The BJP has so many leaders in Bihar. But they have chosen to bring in the prime minister. We have Nitish Kumar, who has no dynasty, comes with a clean image and stands for development,” said Dinesh Singh, president of the JD(U)’s Saran unit.
Yet, Lalu is the biggest obstacle before Nitish. “Lalu has been convicted and is out on bail and he had to pay a fine of Rs.25 lakh. Now he is projecting himself as a freedom fighter,” said Sunil Karn, the BJP’s Katihar unit president.
Bihar could be a game changer for Modi. If the BJP loses, it could have an impact on the party’s chances when elections are held in Punjab in 2016 and Uttar Pradesh in 2017. More action would follow in 2018 when elections to the assemblies of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, all BJP-ruled states with different levels of anti-incumbency, would be held.
BJP president Amit Shah, who has the reputation of being a strategist, is closely monitoring the developments and has his trusted people from all over the country in Bihar right now. Any upset here would put a question mark on his skills. It could also spoil the BJP’s chances of winning a second term for Modi.
Wit does it
While Narendra Modi has been unsparing in his criticism of Nitish Kumar, the latter's responses have been short, though not sweet. One such retort was: “The PM comes from a manufacturing state, lots of it could be data. So, he is manufacturing data.” Brevity, after all, is the soul of wit.