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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 39, New Delhi, September 19, 2015

BJP depending on Mind Game to win the Bihar Elections

Sunday 20 September 2015

by Arun Srivastava

The announcement of elections to the Bihar Assembly has not brought any significant change in the electoral battle but by the time voters finally elect their representatives, the rural Bihar would be witnessing the worst kind of social strife. With the electoral battle turning out to be crucial for survival for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, it is obvious that muscle power would fly high.

It has been quite clear from the beginning that both the leaders have huge stakes in the elections. A Modi victory will not only consoli-date the BJP’s power but also bring about a major change in the body politik of the country. It would change the fundamental character and complexion of politics. On the other hand, if the Grand Alliance [comprising the JD(U), RJD and Congress] wins, it will put an end to Modi’s invincibility. In fact it will abort the design of the Sangh to saffronise the social and political ethos of the country.

So far sporadic attempts are being made to implement the saffron agenda. The Sangh and BJP have been treading cautiously. Once the BJP triumphs, the saffron standard-bearers would cite it as the mandate of the people. Modi’s gamble ought to be not seen as a mere effort to ensure the defeat of his enemy, Nitish. That would be a simplistic analysis. Modi is not such a naïve person to stake his prestige for simply installing a puppet as the Chief Minister. His decision to put at stake his prestige has the blessings of the Sangh Parivar. True enough, the RSS leadership is aware of the importance of the Bihar elections.

It is really astonishing how the so-called messiah of the backward castes and socialist Mulayam Singh could fail to foresee the scenario. What was indeed shocking was his accusation that Nitish’s credentials could not trusted as he had aligned with the BJP. In fact he was speaking like the spokesman of the saffron brigade. If his conscience was clear about Nitish, he should have in the beginning itself rebuffed Nitish. But his deserting the secular alliance just ahead of the final battle smacks of some design.

Nevertheless, one thing is absolutely clear; Nitish is facing the worst political challenge of his life. With a fragile organisation, unreliable alliance comrades and brittle caste support, Nitish cannot be expected to face the challenge from Modi. He has been, during the last couple of months, trying to show-case his achievements as the gains of his good governance. But it appears that has failed to convince the Biharis, particularly the urban middle class. Since the aspirations and requirements of the middle class have no limit, they are not satisfied with what Nitish did for them.

A recent opinion poll pointed out that 40 per cent of the Biharis complimented him for improving the roads. But nearly ten per cent credited him with providing good governance. Even a layman in Patna agrees that during the last ten years the State has progressed and the number of urban middle class has substantially gone up. What does it reflect? The poll also underlined that Nitish had not done enough for women. In this backdrop the earlier comments of the experts and media are worth recalling. They had attributed his 2010 election victory to the solid support from the women. True enough, even the common women confess that they feel secure and empowered.

Undoubtedly a win would project him as the leader capable to take on the mighty BJP. This would eventually marginalise most of his secular colleagues. Obviously they would always abhor any such proposition and situation. The worst aspect of Nitish’s personality has been his arro-gance and ego. Most of the leaders who are opposed to him and joined the BJP bandwagon, are the victims of his arrogance and ego factor. The BJP would have been desperately grappling with the problem of finding allies if Nitish would have mended his arrogance.

Though the war of attrition between pari-vartan and swabhiman, governance and jungle raj have been making much noise at the ground level, the fact remains that Nitish has not succeeded in arousing the sense of self-respect and self-assertion among the Biharis. Though some academics close to Nitish for obvious reasons have been playing with the word ‘Bihari subnationality’, the fact remains that ‘Bihari’ has never been a unifying word. This is the reason that despite nursing the sentiment that Modi actually humiliated him by questioning his DNA, no popular protest or endorsement of his self-respect call surfaced in the State.

Notwithstanding being in an advantageous position the BJP has failed to adopt an offensive posture against Nitish. Unfortunately for Modi himself and the BJP, they have not been able to reply to the swabhiman assertion of Nitish. The State BJP leaders have been mouthing the borrowed concepts and phrases. Their target-group has been Dalits and floating voters. Usually the floating voters, the non-committed, choose the candidates and parties just a couple of days ahead of the final poll and that too based on the hawa (wind)

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Besides looking at many factors before exercising his/her vote, the Indian voter also weighs the hawa (wind). This is the reason that the political parties and their leaders try to create an impression that the wind was blowing in their favour. This is a common word heard during election time. Ground reports and opinion polls often are the main source for these people to choose their candidates. These people prefer to vote for the party which is leading the race. Overall, a little over four out of every 10 voters (43 per cent) seem to go with the hawa, while 45 per cent vote on their own, without any consideration for who seems to be ahead in the race. Surveys show that building hawa is crucial for any party to influence voters in its favour. The floating voters need to be closely watched in Bihar, which is set to see a tightly contested poll

Since hawa is an important factor to influence the common voters, the parties make all efforts to build campaigns much in advance, even before the election has been announced. Just after the announcement of the polls, the BJP leader, Sushil Modi, confessed to have been getting ready since the split. The most popular strategy used by parties in recent times that has been most effective in building hawa has been early propaganda by the party (the ruling party) about the work done by the government. Basically this is the reason that the political parties have started hiring PR professionals. If the BJP and Modi owed their success to hiring of professionals like Prashant Kishor and agencies such as the Indian Political Action Committee, Nitish is also following the same path. Adopting this strategy by the BJP was hugely successful during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Will the strategy work its magic in Bihar?

The middle-class voters have acquired so much of importance that all the campaign strategies are prepared keeping this section in the framework. Recent campaign techniques are primarily meant to feed this section. The political parties know that if this section is swayed then half the work is done. In their perception, a tilt in their stance will also influence the rural voters. Basically that is the reason that the leaders have been counting the chickens even before the eggs are in the basket. Earlier the leaders would promise. But now besides making promises, they also count on the work done and achievements made.

The fight over the so-called special package is one example. While seeking a reply from his audience, Sushil Modi said: “Is it not true that Bihar’s share in devolution of Central taxes over the next five years will be Rs one lakh crore more than West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra?” He also claimed that the Rs 1.25 lakh crore special package announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi will change the shape of Bihar. He charged Nitish Kumar with ‘misleading’ the people of the poll-bound State by indulging in a ‘letter war’ over the PM’s package. Also, according to him, Nitish Kumar’s letter to the Union Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, is nothing but an attempt to mislead the people of Bihar on the special package announced by the Prime Minister for the poll-bound State. Interestingly, Nitish charged that the PM’s package was repackaging of old schemes.

Incidentally, the BJP’s efforts to reach out to this section and feed them does not appear to be succeeding. The BJP’s claim of working for the development and growth of Bihar has few takers. This has not gone unnoticed. This is the reason that the BJP has turned quite aggressive The situation has become volatile for the BJP with people already having started questioning as to why the BJP, which has been a party to the resolution for granting special status to Bihar, has not been exerting pressure on Modi to accede to their demand? With the focus on the middle class obviously the issue of development has come to the centre-stage. On the governance front, Nitish’s performance is better; he has been able to improve the law and order situation in a rowdy State like Bihar.

While the BJP has put its trust in the Modi magic in urban Bihar and strongly feels that that will see it through, Nitish has been focusing on the rural poor besides approaching the urban middle class. For the rural people, the caste factor still matters. But one thing is absolutely clear that the battle for Bihar has now also turned towards securing the votes of the youth, the aspirational class and the urban electorate. Both the alliances have been focussing on consolidating and enlarging their own social constituencies, of course using the caste contradi-ction.

It is an open secret that caste equation does not favour Nitish. He has to depend on outside support. Naturally for him the achievement of his government is quite an important factor to reach out to the voters. His entering into alliance with Laloo Yadav’s RJD is a part of the strategy to ensure the win. For the Nitish Kumar-led grand alliance, the concern is not about getting the Yadavs on board. The Yadavs have been out of power in the State for so long that they just want to be back, though Nitishji is the CM candidate. And since the RJD and JD(U) will be contesting the same number of seats, the race is to ensure that the RJD wins more seats than the JD(U).

While the BJP leaders acknowledge that the JD(U)-led grand alliance will get the Yadav-Muslim-Kurmi votes, the JD(U) leaders, in turn, admit that the upper castes, and a substantial section of the most backward castes and Dalits will throw in their lot with the BJP-led combine. Nevertheless, Nitish’s development credentials are also not weak. His promise to give a monthly allowance of Rs 1000 to the youth in the age-group of 20-25 while they look for a job; providing students who have passed Class XII a student credit card to help them secure a bank loan of Rs 4 lakh, with the State Government providing three per cent interest subvention on the loan have found social acceptability.

Apparently the BJP is certain of a grand victory but also suffers from a sense of lurking fear that rivalry at the ground level between Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitam Ram Manjhi may damage the winning prospects of the party. A fight has begun inside and also outside the NDA. Manjhi is reluctant to concede his crown of Mahadalit leader to Ram Vilas Paswan and has launched a diatribe against him. For him, Paswan is a Scheduled Caste leader and does not represent the aspirations of the Mahadalits. He attacks Paswan because both leaders are occupying the same Dalit space in the BJP scheme of things to take a major chunk of 18 per cent Scheduled Caste votes. Manjhi, who has floated the HAM (Secular), has 13 MLAs coming from the JD (U) camp. Manjhi’s contention is simple: the 13 MLAs are his “punji (capital)”, he wants “sood (interest)” from the BJP. On his partPaswan does not like comparisons with Manjhi. He says he has done politics with the likes of Karpoori Thakur and does not need to prove his credentials.

This fight between the two leaders would badly split the Dalit vote-bank much to the advantage of Nitish. The BJP, having lost the initial bout, is accusing Nitish of betraying Modi in 2010, and has started floating new theories. It is being said that in 2013 when he parted company with the BJP at that time a section of the senior BJP leaders had promised him of providing help. It is being rumoured: at a dinner meeting hosted by Arun Jaitley, the then BJP President, Nitin Gadkari, had famously remarked, “Nitish ji agar aap chahenge tab bhi vo pradhan mantra nahi ban sakte (Nitishji even if you want Modi will never become the Prime Minister).” While he miscalculated, he also overlooked the vulnerability of his Bihar model of development that was essentially funded by the state. It is not sure how far this last-ditch effort of the Modi strategists will help Modi and salvage the political situation for the BJP, but one thing is certain: that will accentuate the social strife.

While the BJP and Modi have already hit the streets in Bihar, Nitish was waiting for the correct time. So far, the Bihar CM’s election campaign has been limited to holding a Swabhiman rally in Patna. He has been waiting for the BJP leaders to exhaust their energy and barbs.

The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52@gmail.com