In east India, the fight is between BJP and the regional parties

The future of three longest-serving chief ministers of India is at stake

22-Nitish-Kumar-and-Tejashwi-Yadav Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav | Illustration: Binesh Sreedharan

Shambhavi Chaudhary may well be a subject for her own doctoral research―the intersection of caste and gender in Bihar politics. As the youngest candidate in the 2024 elections, the 25-year-old gets to pursue her “dream” of entering the Lok Sabha, something her father and grandfather failed to realise as they both had lost the parliamentary elections they fought. Shambhavi, who is contesting from the Samastipur constituency on the Lok Janshakti Party ticket for the National Democratic Alliance, attracted nationwide attention when Prime Minister Narendra Modi showered praise on her, calling her the “youngest dalit, woman candidate” in the country.

Shambhavi comes from a privileged background. Her father, Ashok Chaudhary, is a Janata Dal (United) leader and minister in the Nitish Kumar cabinet. Her grandfather Mahavir Chaudhary was a Congress minister in the state. She studied at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi and Delhi School of Economics and is married to the son of a retired IPS officer, Kunal Kishore. Kishore was known for pushing for dalit priests in temples, although he was from an upper caste family. The story gets curiouser as Shambhavi’s main challenger is Sunny Hazari of the Congress, also a third generation politician. His father, Maheshwar Hazari, too, is from the JD(U) and serves as a minister in the Nitish Kumar government. And father and grandfather were in the Lok Sabha.

The electoral battle in sleepy Samastipur, with its fertile land irrigated by the Ganga and the Budhi Gandak, is emblematic of the political situation in Bihar, and is particularly relevant for Nitish Kumar, who is witnessing an erosion in his vote base and popularity. Samastipur has been a JD(U)-BJP stronghold, but Shambhavi is a novice. Sunny, meanwhile, gets to play the local card as his father was an MP from the constituency. Had Nitish been with the INDIA bloc, he would have been campaigning for Sunny.

2150927345 Generational shift: Narendra Modi with NDA candidate from Samastipur, Shambhavi Chaudhary, at an election meeting | Getty Images

Nitish has a unique record of being sworn in as chief minister nine times in the past 17 years. As no other party has been able to find an alternative to his appeal, he has comfortably shifted sides without suffering any damage to his vote bank. But not any longer. He now faces challenge from both the NDA and the INDIA bloc, as they feel he has been blocking their chances at ruling the state.

With its 40 Lok Sabha seats, Bihar is second only to West Bengal (42 seats) in east India. Together with Odisha’s 21 seats and Jharkhand’s 14, the region has the heft to influence country’s polity, but it has never had the luck of sending a prime minister to Delhi.

But chief ministers from the east have several feats to their credit. Along with Nitish, Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee are among the longest-serving chief ministers in the country. In Jharkhand, the Soren family’s control over the state’s polity is still intact.

26-Odisha-Chief-Minister-Naveen-Patnaik Succession plan: Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik with senior BJD leader V.K. Pandian | Rijo Joseph

The BJP has been working overtime to find alternatives to these leaders, but Modi remains its top draw in all these states. For the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP-led NDA looks to increase its tally in the region. The saffron alliance won 75 of 117 seats in 2019.

“We will win all 40 seats in Bihar,” said Deputy Chief Minister Samrat Chaudhary. The BJP has placed its trust in him to lead the party to victory and to have a shot at the chief minister’s post in future. There is uncertainty about how Nitish would fare in the days to come. Both the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal are hoping to gain at the JD(U)’s expense.

The Congress has faded away in the region, particularly from Bihar since the 1990s as the Janata Dal politics became popular after the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. Bihar is perhaps the only state in the country where socialist principles still influence public debate. Still, any electoral debate or promise in the state is secondary to the caste calculus, which is evident from the fact that the RJD has given more tickets to the Kurmi-Koeri castes than its own Yadav vote bank. It is clearly an attempt to wean away Nitish’s captive vote bank of the Kurmis and the Koeris.

28-West-Bengal-Chief-Minister-Mamata-Banerjee Relentless fight: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at an election campaign in Bongaon | Salil Bera

The sacrifice by the Yadav ticket aspirants is aimed at winning the assembly polls due next year. Former deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav has emerged as the leading campaigner from the INDIA bloc, addressing over a hundred rallies so far, shifting the narrative from hindutva to jobs and development, even as he tries to add more castes to the RJD’s traditional Muslim-Yadav vote bank.

“You will see surprising results this time,” Tejashwi told THE WEEK. After hurting his back by travelling extensively across the state to campaign for his candidates, he needs support to get up and walk. His close aide Sanjay Yadav, a Rajya Sabha member, provides help. “Our fight is to save the Constitution,” said Tejashwi.

RJD supremo Lalu Prasad, who has been the party’s star campaigner for decades with his quick wit and acerbic taunts, is confined to home this time, recovering after a kidney transplant. “My best wishes are with Tejashwi, he will be victorious,” said Lalu, watching his son talk to THE WEEK at their Patna residence.

WHILE BIHAR ALWAYS made headlines with its politics, Odisha, too, is in the news this time, with Modi’s usual warm vibes with Patnaik clearly absent. Political observers were surprised as both leaders traded barbs during the campaign. A reticent politician, Patnaik is credited with transforming Odisha, and he is barely two months away from creating history by becoming the longest-serving chief minister in the country, but Modi said he was losing his connect with people and blamed him for failing to eradicate poverty. In Odisha, which holds simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha and the assembly, the BJP and Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal were initially in talks for an alliance. But as the talks failed, the gloves came off.

PTI02_05_2024_000217B Down, not out: Former chief minister Hemant Soren arrives at Jharkhand assembly to take part in the trust vote of the Champai Soren-government | PTI

“The people of Odisha are with us. The BJD leadership is not facing the common man, instead they say we are trying to dismantle their party. People want change as they see there is no democracy in their party,” said BJP state president Manmohan Samal. The party has made Odia asmita (pride) its key slogan, while the BJD focuses on the syncretic Jagannath culture woven around the Puri temple to keep alive its connect with the people.

The BJP had caused a scare among the BJD leadership in 2019, winning eight Odisha seats in the Lok Sabha. But Patnaik retained his edge in the assembly polls. As he gears up for his sixth consecutive term, the buzz on the ground is that it may not be possible to defeat the BJD, so long as Patnaik is at the helm. “Naveen babu hardly spoke Odia, even though he belonged to the state. His closest aide, V.K. Pandian, speaks fluent Odia, but he is not from the state. These things hardly matter,” said Asok Sahu, a Bhubaneswar resident.

With Patnaik’s enigmatic appeal still strong, the BJP is targeting Pandian, saying he does not allow the chief minister to meet others. A former IAS officer of the Odisha cadre, Pandian is from Tamil Nadu. He has been with Patnaik since 2011, and has emerged as the key politician in the state, after the chief minister.

In the past, the BJD used to focus more on the assembly elections. Pandian said it was different this time. “We are talking about “double” sankha (conch, the party symbol),” he said. Pandian travels across the state addressing three to four rallies in a day as the main speaker. Women and youth throng his rallies and he obliges them with handshakes and selfies. “Women are the game changers. They are blessing Naveen babu again,” said Pandian.

The BJP is hopeful of improving its Lok Sabha tally by winning prestigious seats such as Puri and Sambalpur. Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan is the candidate from Sambalpur. After the BJP opted for Pradhan, replacing the sitting MP, the BJD, too, changed its candidate and brought in party general secretary Pranab Prakash Das, making it a tough battle.

As Patnaik’s appeal remains intact, Pandian dared the BJP to declare its chief minister candidate. For Patnaik and Pandian, it is important to win the assembly elections with a clear margin to stop the BJP’s onslaught. A comprehensive win may help settle the succession debate in the BJD in Pandian’s favour, marking a generational shift.

ON THE EASTERN FRONT, the battle for Bihar and Odisha may still count as tame affairs compared with the fierce warfronts of West Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is yet again leading from the front, taking on the saffron challenge led personally by Modi. With a Muslim vote share of 27 per cent, much of the political debate in the state is hugely polarising and it has been exacerbated by rape cases in Sandeshkhali.

For the BJP, West Bengal is all the more critical as the party may not get more seats from Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha. Moreover, the party saw its steepest jump in 2019 in Bengal, adding 22 per cent votes and 16 seats to its 2014 tally. It has set a target of 30 seats from the state.

Mamata is fighting on her own, refusing to put up a joint front with the INDIA bloc. She is keeping Bengali sub-nationalism as the main driving factor to counter the BJP’s aggressive hindutva push and is hardselling her welfare schemes, especially those for women.

Polarisation works both for the BJP and Mamata’s Trinamool Congress. While the BJP talks about demography, the Trinamool says it will stall the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. Modi continues to draw huge crowds and he reminds them of the corruption charges against Trinamool leaders, sexual assaults on women in Sandeshkhali and the teachers’ recruitment scam. In a recent rally, Modi gave his five guarantees to the people of West Bengal to counter the Mamata’s messaging: No reservations based on religion; no tinkering with reservations for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes; allowing the celebration of Ram Navami; no overturning of Supreme Court judgment on Ram Mandir; and no stopping of the CAA. The BJP has also let its local leaders take charge of the campaign unlike in the earlier elections when key leaders from other states were more visible.

THE FOUR STATES on the eastern front differ from one another in sentiments and polity. Jharkhand, for instance, is dominated by the tribal identity. Interestingly, the BJP delayed moving against former chief minister Hemant Soren by keeping under wraps the Election Commission’s opinion to the Jharkhand governor against him. The opinion was on Soren violating electoral laws by extending a mining lease to himself. It could have disqualified him and he would have lost the chief minister’s post. However, it would not have been of much help for the BJP, politically.

But earlier this year, just a few months before the Lok Sabha polls, Soren was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate on an alleged land scam. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha named Champai Soren as the new chief minister, and gave Hemant Soren’s wife, Kalpana, a key political role. She is contesting from the Gandey assembly seat after the sitting JMM legislator vacated it for her. Kalpana’s presence would allow her husband to keep an eye on the government and the party as assembly polls are due later this year. Hemant Soren has given enough indication that she could be chief minister if he is going to be out of politics for a long time.

The BJP is keen to maintain its dominance in the Lok Sabha polls in Jharkhand and it continues to woo the tribal community, which rewarded the saffron party with maximum number of seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes category in 2019. Of 47 seats reserved for the STs in India, the BJP won 31. In Jharkhand, the party won 12 of 14 seats, clocking more than 56 per cent vote share. While the BJP hopes that its fruitful association with the tribals continues, the INDIA bloc is invoking adivasi pride to wean the community away from the BJP. The INDIA bloc has alleged that the BJP and the NDA are looking at amending the Constitution to remove reservation, if they manage to reach their declared target of 400 seats.

The BJP, however, said the party would never tamper with reservation. “The opposition claims that reservation will end. They say we will change the Constitution. They are making these false statements to mislead the people,” said Union Minister Arjun Munda. “The Constitution is our holy book and it cannot be changed.”

After the BJP lost the 2019 assembly elections―which many observers say happened because the BJP appointed a non-tribal chief minister―the party brought back Babulal Marandi, the first chief minister of the state, to keep the focus back on the tribals. How the BJP fares in the tribal region in the Lok Sabha polls will determine how it will be perceived in the assembly elections in Jharkhand.

In eastern India, the fight is between the regional parties and the BJP. The regional satraps are far more vigilant this time as the saffron party had stunned most of them with surprising results in the past. Will there be more surprises again on June 4 when the votes are counted? The future of three longest-serving chief ministers of India are also at stake.