One round of the lawns in 7, Circular Road, Patna, covers about half a kilometre. The master of the house, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, however, does not bother to keep track of the number of rounds he does. He prefers to go by his wristwatch. He spends an hour walking in the lawns every morning between 5 and 6, without fail. He does not miss it even during these days of hectic election campaign. Nitish, perhaps, uses the morning walk to collect his thoughts for the day and to plan his strategy.
By the time he takes a shower, eats his breakfast and is ready to go, there are a few people waiting―strictly by appointment―to talk to him. Some of them are politicians, some are old associates not active in politics and some are family members. Most of them have come to wish him well.
He needs all the best wishes that come his way as Bihar goes to the polls, starting from October 12. Analysts and colleagues often use the Mahabharata analogy to describe the emerging scene in Bihar as Nitish takes on his old allies, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, in the company of his erstwhile rival Lalu Prasad.
But, for Nitish, it seems more than an epic battle. The Pandavas were five. For all practical purposes, he seems to be fighting alone. The Pandavas had Krishna on their side. Nitish does not have that luxury. And, his opposition is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, although at the end of the day, it is just another assembly election. A number of Modi's cabinet colleagues are campaigning for the NDA. “Has the Modi cabinet taken a two-month vacation? So many of them are parked in Bihar,” says Janata Dal (United) state president Basisht Narayan Singh.
It is a little past 9am, and Nitish hops into his car, on his way to the helipad. Sometimes, a senior party leader rides with the chief minister. Nitish addresses four or five rallies a day.
It is a blazing hot day at Tajpur in Samastipur district, where Nitish is scheduled to speak. The government school ground wears a festive look, with a sizeable crowd that also has many young boys and girls. Most of them seem to be attracted more to the machine than the man. As he arrives, the youngsters start to click selfies, trying to get Nitish in the frame. He waves to them and smiles while walking to the dais. That is when his connect with the people hits you. People want to meet him on stage. He seems to know many of them. “I have seen you, Amjad Hussain,” he calls out. Navin Kumar, general secretary of the JD(U), says Nitish is perhaps the only mass leader of Bihar. “He knows people in every part of the state by name.”
Soon, Nitish begins his speech. No names are mentioned, other than that of the candidates for whom he is seeking support. Not even the names of the political parties are mentioned. The speech is gentle and civilised, compared with many of his adversaries'.
But three speakers before him had more than warmed up the crowd for him. “If your banker asks you to repay your loan, tell him to wait till the prime minister returns from America. Tell him that Modiji will bring back the black money and deposit it in your account, and you will repay your loan,” said the first speaker. Modi was the target of the second speaker, too. “Modi told you that if he became prime minister, he would immediately get back the black money from abroad, and deposit Rs.15 lakh to Rs.20 lakh in each of your bank accounts. Has he done that? Have you got the money?” It got the crowds to cheer wildly even as the third speaker started telling them about the secret agenda of the RSS. “The BJP has put all its might into this election only to increase its numbers in the Rajya Sabha. With that strength, they will amend the Constitution and scrap reservation. The RSS wants that and the RSS is their boss. We must crush Modi’s designs,” he said, to a huge round of applause.
Nitish, meanwhile, gets into the act and tells the crowd not to waste a single vote. He speaks of the unity in his Grand Alliance, comprising the JD(U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, which enabled them to release the list of candidates without any major disagreement.
He cites figures from the National Crime Records Bureau to counter the NDA's charge that Bihar is going back to jungle raj. “They are insulting us,” he says, encouraged by the Bihari pride, which is on display on each and every face in the crowd. He says it was his government which gave bicycles to girl students, which led to an increase in the number of girls attending schools. “What parivartan? Will they change that?” he asks. Parivartan (change) is the tagline of the BJP campaign.
Soon, it is time for fresh poll promises: credit cards for students to pay their fees, soft loans for entrepreneurial ventures, sustenance allowance for families whose men are out of the state in search of jobs, 35 per cent reservation for women in government jobs, and electricity and water taps for all households by the end of next year.
There is no reference to meat or beef in the speech. No mention of Lalu, too, who many think is an albatross round his neck. The two are not even seen together and there are no signs of a coordinated campaign. “That is a waste of time. Both of them address four or five rallies each a day, covering more people. Nitishji campaigns for RJD candidates and Laluji does likewise for JD(U) candidates,” says Navin Kumar. After we missed Lalu’s rally a few kilometres before Tajpur, the RJD workers there directed us to Nitish’s rally.
Before he finishes his speech, Nitish comes up with his sucker punch. “Who should govern Bihar? A Bihari, or a bahari (outsider)?” And, the crowd erupts with chants of “Bihari”. “You have a pure Bihari in front of you. If you think I have brought development, vote for us,” he says. He has clearly won over the crowd.
With Nitish in full flow, it is not easy for his rivals. The BJP's campaign strategy is overseen by party president Amit Shah. He is camping in Patna, supervising the finer details of the campaign. Like Nitish and Lalu, he also boards a chopper every morning to attend meetings. But unlike them, he addresses party workers. A confident Shah tells them that the BJP will form the next government with a two-thirds majority. But the confidence appears cultivated. The unleashing of several members of the Modi cabinet and the offer of freebies suggest that the BJP knows the elections are not going to be a cakewalk. Indeed, an exclusive opinion poll conducted by THE WEEK and Hansa Research suggests that the advantage, although marginal, lies with Nitish. And, when it comes to the choice of the next chief minister, Nitish wins hands down. No wonder the BJP now speaks about appointing a member of Other Backward Classes as the next chief minister, should it win the elections. Union Minister Arun Jaitley confirmed as much while releasing the BJP's vision document for Bihar.
In fact, it is not easy for the BJP to criticise Nitish as it was an alliance partner of the JD(U) for several years. According to some BJP leaders, the degeneration began after the BJP and the JD(U) parted ways, which they says happened because of Nitish's arrogance and prime ministerial ambitions.
The primary target of the BJP, therefore seems to be Lalu, whom the party charges with misgovernance and corruption. It hopes to hijack his core support base of Yadavs. The BJP has fielded 22 Yadav candidates and has kept its doors open for anyone who wants to join the party. It may be too late to give tickets, but the BJP has been saying openly that there will be other offices and opportunities once they have formed the government in the state.
Lalu realises that he is the target and has responded bluntly, despite the watchful eyes of the Election Commission. “His words are like arrows and will meet the target,” says an RJD worker. Lalu does not back away from attacking the BJP. “The BJP does not care for the backward classes. They care only for the upper castes,” he says, trying to take the voters back to the Mandal mood. He, too, boards a chopper in the morning, addresses four or five rallies, regales people with earthy jokes against the BJP.
Both Lalu and Nitish return to their bases by 5pm, to prepare for the next day. “They don’t need to watch television or read newspapers to know on what issues they have been targeted. And, they don’t need to be told how to respond,” says a JD(U) office bearer. As of now, no one is willing to speak about the tenuous relationship between Nitish and Lalu, and supporters of both leaders discount the possibility of Lalu wanting to hijack the government even though Nitish is the chief ministerial candidate. “Lalu is working overtime to ensure that Nitish becomes CM,” says the JD(U) leader.
Clearly, together they swim, alone they sink.
For the purpose of the opinion poll, a survey covering 7,780 eligible voters was held from September 18 to October 1. Data collection was made through computer-aided personal interviews. Random sampling of eligible voters with quotas for age, gender, religion and caste was done. All 40 Lok Sabha constituencies and 60 of 243 assembly segments in Bihar were covered. The assembly segments covered within each Lok Sabha constituency were decided on the basis of the level of competition in the Lok Sabha constituency, which was determined by analysing the results of the 2010 assembly elections. In each assembly segment, the sample was spread across four randomly selected polling booths.
The computer-aided personal interviews were conducted with GPRS-enabled tablets to ensure strict quality control, and respondents marked their preference for a political party on a tablet screen that looked like an electronic voting machine.