Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar
Patna, Oct. 28: Yesterday’s multiple blasts have not merely chipped the masonry off chief minister Nitish Kumar’s image, they have also rippled Bihar’s political calculus anew.
The state is no stranger to turbulence and upheaval, but the current churn has left even hard-boiled politicos baffled on what it may throw up.
One of Bihar’s stalwart politicians has been stripped of his Lok Sabha seat and sent to jail, convicted of conspiracy and embezzlement in the fodder scandal. Lalu Prasad’s constituency, still a substantive 16-18 per cent, is agape, wondering whether their hero will even manage a return to active leadership.
Lalu Prasad’s successor and current incumbent, Nitish, has hit his worst patch as chief minister — stumbled by a series of political and administrative reverses, unable to upscale the governance successes of his first term, under challenge from aggressive and wrathful former allies in the BJP.
Narendra Modi has now waded into these uncertain waters, a new X factor that could well alter conventional ways of working the Bihari political equation.
His party’s support base is essentially upper caste. His spin doctors are keen to sell him in the northern heartland as a backward protagonist who began as a tea-boy. Modi himself would like to believe his appeal will defy traditional voting patterns and cut across rigid caste and sectarian lines. His Patna speech was proof he wants to woo constituencies that have classically voted the BJP. Yadavs and Muslims are the only voter groups he made a special effort to reach out to.
Ravi Shankar Prasad, a lead actor of the Modi think tank in Bihar, isn’t averse to stunning forecasts well ahead of the Lok Sabha battle. “The coming results will be astounding, there is a Modi wave I can see which will put the anti-Emergency upsurge of 1977 in the shade. Bihar will play a huge role in our victory march to Delhi.”
The BJP’s aggression is partly also a way to taunt Nitish for parting ways on the Modi issue and warning him he will regret his decision.
Nitish has consistently dismissed the BJP’s belligerence as bluster and claimed the electorate will call its bluff: “People who are imagining waves and storms will eventually be swept away by them. Corporate campaigns and big money do not win elections, people have other parameters.”
Nitish lost more than just his two-thirds majority in the Assembly when he broke with the BJP in June; he also lost the vocal upper castes who have since led the BJP’s domination of the political discourse and created the perception of a surge on Bihar’s listening posts.
If Nitish has kept a brave face on future prospects following the break with the BJP, it has hinged on two factors —his ability to retain the support of non-Yadav backward communities and Mahadalits, and to add to them the larger chunk of Bihar’s 15 per cent minority votes.
In the Nitish backroom, conquest of the Muslim vote following his angered rejection of Modi is being counted as a given. If also because Lalu Prasad, the chief recipient of Muslim trust, has been hobbled by his conviction.
But here’s where the rub may lie for Nitish, as well as for Lalu Prasad and the Congress, which is bidding to retain Delhi a third successive time. Probably the only thing that can be said of the Muslim vote with any certainty is that it will not go to the BJP. Where that vote might go is still up in the air, the noises of it contrary claimants notwithstanding.
Perhaps most critical to securing the Muslim vote will be the ability to demonstrate winnability. Who does that better will take time to become evident. Nitish and his party believe their positive discrimination efforts for Muslims, and the decision to jettison the BJP, will swing the majority of Muslims.
Lalu Prasad’s RJD, though, cannot be said to have lost its grip on minorities, as the Maharajganj Lok Sabha bypoll in June evidenced.
The Congress, though emaciated in Bihar, could become ironically critical to this scheme. In a national election, it will inevitably be perceived as the chief roadblock to Modi. Consequently, who the Congress decides to pick as ally between Lalu Prasad and Nitish could also shape the tilt of the Muslim vote.