As Bihar begins voting today, the figure of Nitish Kumar looms, bruised and diminished — and alone. In 2010, Nitish was alone, too, but as the conquering bijli-sadak-paani hero, the centre of the NDA campaign, with the BJP taking a quiescent second place. “Kaam kiye hain”, was the approving refrain, as voters counted out the list of public goods and subsidies his government delivered, most spectacularly cycles for schoolgirls.
In 2015, he shared the stage with rival-turned-friend Lalu Prasad Yadav with the BJP his aggressive challenger. In that election, “Nitish ji kaam toh bahut kiye hain” was the opening line but wasn’t always the conclusion, even though the Lalu-Nitish alliance went on to win.
This time Nitish looks alone and embattled in the Election 2020 frame, as voters ask: “Road aur bijli se pet bhar jaayega (is road and electricity enough)?” That the three-term Chief Minister looks alone with the people’s anger points to a formless opponent, and an ally receding from the stage.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who dominated the 2014 Lok Sabha poll with his promise of “change” and then the 2019 Lok Sabha poll on the “national security” plank, shored up by Hindutva, is not a domineering presence in this election. Except for a section of forwarding caste voters, Bihar will vote for and against Nitish, not in Modi’s name.
Therefore, Modi’s own ability to draw votes from across caste fault-lines may not become the ballast for the NDA. On the other side, anger against Nitish is seen and heard, even among the backward castes, and especially in the young and educated, but it’s not clear whether these alienated voters are engaging meaningfully with Tejashwi.
In this election amid a full-blown pandemic of distress, disillusion, and coronavirus, in that order, Tejashwi Yadav draws crowds, and his promise of 10 lakh jobs is commanding attention. And yet, in many voters’ telling, a vote for him appears to be a form of NOTA — None Of The Above — when he is not merely seen as Son of Lalu.
Being his father’s son brings him a large part of the traditional RJD Muslim-Yadav base, but also stokes spectres of “jungle raj” for the upper castes, and of “Yadav raj” for sections of the non-Yadav backward castes. In an intensely politically self-conscious state, how many will be driven to cast a purely negative vote — that is the question.
The formlessness of Candidate Tejashwi is certainly not for want of trying. Indeed, there has been a concerted effort in the RJD camp to re-package him. Almost as if they were taking a leaf out of the Modi-BJP playbook, RJD strategists seem to have designed a multi-layered appeal — Caste-Plus for Tejashwi, on the lines of Hindutva-Plus for Modi.
So, within caste, the ticket distribution was done with data and on laptops. In Sasaram, for example, the RJD has fielded a Bania candidate for the first time — social engineering over-riding caste patronage.
Aware that his party’s history can be a burden, Lalu is conspicuously missing on Tejashwi posters. And “social justice” is consciously overlaid with “economic justice” — jobs over representation — in the RJD slogan. This is a significant shift for a party which, so far, had the now-incarcerated Mandal Messiah as its only USP — and its main liability in a changing Bihar. Over his three terms in power, Nitish successfully imbued the agenda of social justice with the grammar of development.
Yet, across castes, including in the Yadavs, you hear an anti-Nitish argument that still doesn’t quite sound pro-Tejashwi.