Bihar polls ground report: Smiling Modi, grim Nitish
It's a straight battle for Patliputra.
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Owaisi electrifies poll air
There is glee in the BJP camp and rage in the grand alliance over Asaduddin Owaisi's decision to put up the AIMIM candidates in the Seemanchal region of Bihar. Senior leaders of Nitish Kumar's party like education minister PK Shahi have publicly alleged that Owaisi has been paid money and has been sent by the BJP president Amit Shah to split the Muslim vote. Owaisi vehemently denies the charge and has threatened to file criminal defamation cases in Hyderabad against anyone who alleges that he is a RSS-BJP plant.
Political posturing apart, there is no denying that Owaisi's presence helps consolidate Hindu voters in favour of the BJP. Owaisi says he is considering putting up candidates on 24 seats in the Seemanchal area. Owaisi's candidates are unlikely to win at the hustings but not only will his candidates split part of the minority vote but also more importantly his shrill Muslim victimisation rhetoric can help feed the minority versus majority complex in the state. One of the major reasons the BJP swept Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha elections was that a large number of voters overlooked traditional caste arithmetic and voted along religious lines. Under Nitish's rule communal tempers have been lower than in the neighbouring UP. But with Bihar slipping into the festive season, religious tempers could rise in the weeks to come, especially if Asaduddin's younger brother Akbaruddin also rides into Bihar with his fiery speeches.
Owaisi as the new Kanshi Ram
London-educated-barrister Asaduddin Owaisi is acutely conscious of the fact that his presence is being looked at with grave suspicion even among influential members of the minority community. To justify his plunge into the poll arena in Bihar, Owaisi has now started citing the BSP founder Kanshi Ram's logic of contesting elections. "Pehla chunav hota hai haarne ke liye, doosra chunav hota hai haraane ke liye, teesra chunav hota hai jeetne ke liye." (You fight the first election to lose, the second to help defeat the opposition and the third election is fought to win.)
Like Kanshi Ram, Owaisi too is eyeing the Muslim-Dalit vote bank. He has collated data to show how the fruits of development have not trickled down to the impoverished Muslims and Dalits in the Kosi belt. His argument is that minorities and Dalits continue to suffer the most even after 25 years of rule by so-called secular leaders. The Dalits and Muslims both constitute about 15 per cent each of Bihar's population. If they come together, it provides a virtually impregnable vote bank for any political party. Owaisi hopes to make a mark for himself in Bihar in times to come and emerge as the only credible Muslim leader with a pan-India following. Owaisi's calculation is that the presence of a hard-line Hindutva icon like Modi is perfect breeding ground for a strong countervailing Muslim force.
What Owaisi is not able to do though is provide a cogent answer for why he didn't put up candidates in the Assembly elections in Delhi. His logic at the time was that the minorities had united in favour of Kejriwal and against Modi and that he didn't want to hurt the prospects of the AAP and end up helping the BJP. Lalu and Nitish are asking why Owaisi is not applying the same logic to Bihar.
Lalu's jungle raj counterattack
Nitish Kumar is trying hard to turn the Bihar elections into a battle between the Nitish and the Modi model of governance. The BJP though is going to people and saying that Lalu's jungle raj will return if they vote for the grand alliance. While addressing rallies, the state level BJP leaders say, "Law will be with Nitish but the order will come from Lalu."
Under constant attack, Lalu Yadav has now decided to aggressively counter the BJP's jungle raj pitch. Playing the emotional Yaduvanshi caste card, Lalu asks his supporters whether the 15 years that they were in power was jungle raj. Lalu claims that because he gave a voice to the backward communities and gave them the political strength to reverse many centuries of upper caste domination, therefore an upper caste party like the BJP is trying to project his rule as jungle raj. Lalu's RJD has even started putting up hoardings across the state saying, "Humne di gareebon ko awaaz, woh kehte hain jungle raj." (We gave voice to the poor, they call it jungle raj.)
My loss will be Bihar's loss
As he gets set to crisscross the state over the next two months, Nitish Kumar is trying hard not to appear over anxious and under pressure. He tells voters that he has been working hard to develop the state over the last ten years and it will be their loss if they get swayed by the BJP's rhetoric and don't vote him back to power. Nitish said, "I will find something to do, but it is the people of the state who will have to suffer if they don't vote for me. Do you wish to vote for someone who has worked tirelessly for you or vote for someone who only makes tall promises?"
Nitish tries to present himself as someone who promises only what he can deliver unlike Modi who Nitish alleges makes tall claims but does little to implement them. Nitish has also compiled a list of promises Modi made when he came to Bihar before the Lok Sabha polls. He names each promise one by one and asks people whether any of those promises have been kept in the last 16 months. Morning shows the way says Nitish and if in the first year and a half of his government Narendra Modi has not delivered on any of his promises then there is little chance that he will by the time his tenure ends.
Nitish's spin doctor advantage
In December last year, Nitish Kumar touched base with master spin doctor Prashant Kishor. Kishor who now runs Indian People's Action Committee (I-PAC) was then at the helm of the Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) and was with Modi at his Gandhinagar residence for several months before the Lok Sabha polls. Kishor and helped craft Modi's political message. Kishor claims he left Modi because he wanted to take up a new challenge and see whether his presence could make a difference to the outcome of an election or whether he was successful with Modi only because he happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Senior BJP leaders allege Kishor started thinking no end of himself and believed that it was he who helped Modi win and was expecting to be given a plum position in the party. A senior BJP leader says Kishor asked him, "May ke baad kya?" (What after May?) to which the senior leader is reported to have replied, "June." BJP top brass felt that Kishore was too arrogant and stepped on too many toes to be given a senior position in the party.
Kishor now stays at Nitish's 1, Anne Marg residence in Patna and his presence has definitely made a difference to the efficacy of Nitish's communication strategy. In the Lok Sabha elections, Modi set the agenda and Lalu emerged as the biggest opposition force in Bihar, pushing Nitish to a distant third.
Knowing the ins and outs of how Modi functions helps Kishor set the news agenda instead of having to play catch up with his former boss. On the day of the Muzaffarpur rally, Kishor waited till the time Modi's plane took off from Delhi to pose four questions to Modi. Instead of showing preparation shots from the venue of the rally, news channels started broadcasting the four questions that Nitish had raised on Twitter. Kishor knew that once Modi was airborne he would no longer have access to the kind of support staff that he would have had in the capital. That's the day Modi attacked Nitish's DNA, which Kishore then tried to spin into an attack on Bihar's DNA. So far one lakh Biharis have sent clippings of their nails and strands of hair to the prime minister's office.
The importance of Annexure 1
Political pundits broadly feel that any Muslim polarisation in favour of the RJD-JDU will get nullified by an upper caste consolidation in favour of the BJP alliance, while a substantial chunk of the Yadavs voting for the grand alliance will be neutralised by the NDA picking up a major part of the Dalit vote. With both sides going into battle with about 30 per cent of the vote each, the battle will come down to the 130 odd Extremely Backward Castes listed in Annexure 1 of the Mungeri Lal Commission report which was implemented by the Karpoori Thakur government in 1978. Annexure 1 comprises disparate small castes like Khatik, Dhanuk, Nai, Bind and Barahi who have not traditionally voted as one block but through a series of social and economic measures Nitish succeeded in mobilising the Annexure 1 castes as a vote bank in the 2010 elections. But with leaders like Upendra Kushwaha breaking away from Nitish, the BJP too is hoping to bag a major chunk of the Annexure 1 castes. Which alliance ends up bagging a major chunk of the Annexure 1 castes could well decide who ends up winning the battle of Patliputra.
Paswan versus Manjhi
In an act of rare political magnanimity Ram Vilas Paswan said at the Aajtak Panchayat programme that Jitan Ram Manjhi was a bigger Dalit leader than him. But behind the public display of camaraderie, there is little love lost between the two Dalit leaders. Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party believes that Amit Shah is overestimating the electoral impact that Manjhi will have, while Manjhi believes that his actions as chief minister have endeared him to Bihar's Dalits and that he's the only leader whose appeal transcends the multiple Dalit castes as opposed to Paswan who is only a leader of the Paswan community.
Paswans are seen as the most aggressive of the Dalit castes and are believed to possess Kshatriya (warrior) traits. In previous elections, Paswans and Musahars have rarely voted on the same side because of local level antagonism. Paswans are about four per cent of Bihar's electorate and so are the Musahars. It is integral to Amit Shah's grand strategy that the NDA grab both the Paswan and the Musahar votes. But trying to get these two opposing castes to work with for one another is as difficult as it is for Lalu and Nitish to get the opposing Yadavs and the Kurmi-Koeris to vote on the same side.
Sushil Modi as the frontrunner
The BJP has so far not projected a chief ministerial candidate in Bihar but in internal deliberations Sushil Modi is being touted as the probable chief minister in case of a BJP victory. Sushil Modi was the deputy chief minister and finance minister in the JD(U)-BJP government but his equation with Narendra Modi was frayed because he was seen as being too close to Nitish Kumar. The senior Modi believed that Sushil Modi never stood up for him against Nitish. But those in-charge of managing the BJP's Bihar campaign say that the PM's trust deficit with Sushil Modi is now a thing of the past and that in a recent meeting Narendra Modi is reported to have said he holds no grudges against Sushil Modi.
Today's political friends in Bihar have been bitter enemies in the past. Lalu and Nitish. Manjhi and the BJP. The easiest way to trip a leader is to remind him about some vitriolic comment he made about his "friend" in the past. Education minister PK Shahi used to be the attorney general of Bihar and was the prosecution lawyer who helped convict Lalu Yadav in the fodder scam. Shahi now shares the stage with the RJD leaders. Ask Shahi if he still thinks that Lalu is corrupt and that the stole the state's money and Shahi ties himself up in verbal knots and finally says that in his personal life he doesn't always agree with what he said in his professional life.
Modi-Nitish hoarding war
Driving through the streets of Patna one is overwhelmed by the sheer number of political hoardings that dominate the capital's skyline. A smiling Modi can be seen with folded hands and the text on the hoarding reads, "Bihar ke vikas mein ab nahi baadha, Modiji ne diya vaade se zyada." (There's no roadblock in Bihar's development any longer. Modi has given Bihar a special package that is bigger than what was promised to the state) Right next to Modi's giant hoardings is a stern looking Nitish Kumar waving a finger with the text saying, "Jhanse mein nahi ayenge, Nitishji ko jitayange." (We will not be fooled, we will make Nitish win)
What's interesting is that Nitish's alliance partner Lalu is nowhere to be seen in any of the hoardings. And there's no state leader in the BJP hoardings either. It's a direct contest, between a smiling Modi and a grim Nitish Kumar.