Till a few days ago, the main sign of elections in Patna was the larger-than-life posters of the principal fighters in the fray. On the one side, it was the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo in the saffron-and-green posters of the BJP; on the other, a lone Nitish Kumar, in somewhat monochromatic posters. The situation has now changed.
When the first of five phases of polling in Bihar ended on the evening of October 12, the kind of joy that BJP president Amit Shah expected to see in his camp was absent. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance did not offer any estimate of the number of seats it would win out of the 49 seats for which polling was held. But its rival, the Grand Alliance of the Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, had done their calculations. Their estimate, THE WEEK learnt, was between 31 and 41 seats in their kitty.
Four days later, polling was held for 32 seats. Among the candidates was Jitan Ram Manjhi, Hindustan Awami Morcha leader and one of the strongest allies of the BJP. Manjhi was a prize catch the BJP had managed to pluck from the JD(U).
By October 16, the prime minister had addressed ten rallies since the elections were announced. He was his usual self, attacking the chief minister and his alliance partner and former chief minister Lalu Prasad. Both Nitish and Lalu were telling people that the Modi government was determined to wind up reservations for dalits, backward classes and tribals. They ended every rally asking people whether they wanted a Bihari or a bahari (outsider). And party workers drew people’s attention to the posters playing up Modi and Shah, who are from Gujarat.
Stung, the BJP decided to rework its poll strategy and recalibrate the presence of outsiders. It slowly replaced the posters of the baharis with those of its Biharis—Sushil Kumar Modi, C.P. Thakur, Mangal Pandey and Ashwini Kumar Choubey, among others. Modi’s rallies slated for October 16 were cancelled, and it became clear that even though he would address more rallies, the anticipated 40-plus rallies in Bihar would not happen.
By then, issues worse than reservations and Bihari vs bahari jibe had come up. The lynching in Dadri was followed by writers returning their awards and lamenting the shrinking space for freedom of expression. Modi's call for communal harmony during an election rally at Buxar was too little, too late. By then, several BJP leaders had spoken their minds, and all but celebrated the culprits behind the Dadri butchery. One of them said former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was a great Indian “even though” he was a Muslim. Another leader generously allowed Muslims to live in India if they forsook beef. Clearly, there were issues on which Modi, who generally talks, chose not to talk on.
All those who made inflammatory remarks were called to Shah's office in Delhi, reportedly for a dressing down. The leaders, however, denied it as they came out of their meeting with Shah. For them, it was a routine party discussion.
When the second phase of polling was over, the Nitish camp reckoned that they would win 19 to 25 seats. The assessment, confidential as it was, was not a good sign for the BJP. The region that went to the polls on October 16 is considered the “Chittorgarh of Bihar”, said a Patna resident. It is home to Rajputs, Bhumihars and Brahmins—all seen as the core voters of the BJP. The party had hoped to make good the losses in the first phase here. Perhaps, party MP Shatrughan Sinha sensed the mood when he tweeted: “News that my party could have done better in the first and second phases upsets me.”
Said Bashishtha Narain, state president of the JD(U): “The removal of posters of Modi and Shah clearly shows that the prime minister has got a disappointing feedback.”
In Delhi, Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi said, “They have seen the writing on the wall. When you see the writing on the wall, you do not want your own face on the wall, because you will then be held responsible as the twin lead campaigners for the disastrous results that are bound to follow.” He said the BJP move was “an acceptance of defeat and an avoidance of accountability for the defeat”.
“The BJP has made a poor man's son the prime minister,” Shah told journalists three days later in Patna. He claimed the party would win 54 to 58 of 81 seats in the first two phases of the elections. He also asserted that the party was committed to providing reservations for dalits, tribals and backward classes. But the main thrust of his rhetoric was against Nitish and Lalu, and on the fear of jungle raj and on the BJP’s development package to pull Bihar out of backwardness.
It seemed that Shah feared an eruption of infighting among BJP leaders in Bihar for the leadership mantle, as the party redrew its ‘poster strategy’. For, at the press conference, he reiterated the practice of legislators choosing their leader after elections.
But, as the invective-loaded campaign gets more shrill, the PM vs CM battle is going beyond Bihar. The main issue now is the skyrocketing price of pulses. When Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said recently that the price of diesel and petrol had come down, Suresh Manjhi, a dalit from Makdampura, the constituency from where Jitan Ram Manjhi is contesting, asked, “Are we expected to drink diesel? It is for the prime minister to make dal affordable.” Predictably enough, the Grand Alliance is now drumming home the point.
In the midst of all this, sources told THE WEEK that the BJP’s decision to reduce Modi’s direct involvement with the Bihar elections was based on an intelligence input the Centre has received, which gives the NDA about 80 of the 243 seats in Bihar.