Parties have taken a backseat in Bihar where the electoral contest has whittled down to a triangular fight between three personalities — Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad and Narendra Modi.
The RJD and JD(U) were already identified with their makers, Lalu and Nitish. The two regional satraps, though at war with each other, are known more for adhering to the common stratagem of not allowing multi-layered structures to emerge in their parties. The RJD and JD(U) are what their “bosses” wish them to be like.
But unlike during the era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, Narendra Modi has emerged as the “all-in-one” in his party. Be it by design or coincidence, the BJP mascot’s personality —firm and autocratic — has emerged as the party’s principle guiding force dictating its course of action.
Even ideologies have become warped. The pre-Lalu-Nitish era leaders belonging to the socialist school derived strength from Ram Manohar Lohia, Jaya Prakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur’s ideology. In the BJP, the candidates in the Vajpayee-Advani period drew their vigour from the right-wing philosophy. But candidates today appear wholly dependent on the persona of their “bosses”, be it Lalu, Nitish or Modi.
Given this, the stakes are equally high for all three.
Nitish has publicly expressed fear that Modi (without naming him), if he comes to power, will not allow his (the JD-U’s) government to survive. “They (read Modi-led BJP) will pull down our government mandated by you and halt the progress of the state,” the chief minister has said in rally after rally. Insiders in the JD(U) too fear that Modi — the sole reason for Nitish to break his 17-year-old alliance with the BJP - might go all out to nail the Bihar chief minister.
Similarly, Modi’s ambition to become the Prime Minister might come undone if his party doesn’t live up to the expectations in Bihar. Opinion polls have predicted a tally of between 24 and 30 seats for the party in the state that sends 40 members to the Lok Sabha. BJP veterans remember how the NDA’s “India Shining” campaign got stuck in Bihar in 2004. The Lalu-led RJD-Congress-LJP alliance had then won 29 seats, reducing the NDA to 11 and subsequently compelling Vajpayee to pass on the mantle to Manmohan Singh. The same NDA had won 40 of 54 seats that undivided Bihar had in 1999.
“We will have to win at least 20 to 25 seats in Bihar to realistically hope for Modi to become Prime Minister. We know that we don’t stand much of a chance in Bengal, the Northeast and in most of the south. If we trip in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which together account for 120 seats, we will find it difficult to get allies,” a senior BJP leader admitted to The Telegraph.
The embattled Lalu Prasad has an equally high stake. Personally, he stands convicted in a fodder scam case and is barred from entering the poll fray. His party has been in tatters for over five years. Having been reduced to four MPs in 2009, the RJD got battered further, getting only 22 MLAs in the 243-member Assembly in 2010.
His party candidate Prabhunath Singh’s victory in a byelection from Maharajganj last year offered Lalu a slender hope of revival. But he was subsequently convicted by the trial court in Ranchi. His 22-member party suffered a split recently with at least four MLAs led by Samrat Choudhary “defecting”.
Lalu has fielded his wife Rabri Devi and daughter Misa Bharti from Saran and Pataliputra respectively as a last ditch effort to regain his and his family’s grip on the party and the state.
But apart from the high stakes staring in the face, the three “titans” share equal strengths and weaknesses too. The BJP has a “fresh” face in its prime ministerial candidate in the context of Bihar. Narendra Modi is far ahead of his prime rivals, Lalu and Nitish, in pulling crowds at his meetings. Besides, considered a political “pariah” till recently, he is ahead of others in getting “friends” also in the state. He has allies in Ram Vilas Paswan and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party leader Upendra Kushwaha. BJP cadres and supporters claim a “wave” is sweeping in his favour.
Modi has flaunted his backward caste origin, eyeing the OBCs who constitute 60 per cent of the state’s voters. A section of BJP leaders is hopeful that the “wave” might cut across the intricate layers of the state’s caste-based social order seeing Modi through eventually. But the “over-emphasis” on Modi’s backward origin might also turn counter-productive with the upper castes - the core support base of the BJP - becoming suspicious about losing their primacy in the party. The party has already annoyed some upper caste faces, including Lal Muni Choubey and Chandra Mohan Rai, by denying them tickets.
Nitish has “social engineering” combined with governance and work as his biggest strength. He succeeded in carving out the EBCs and Mahadalits — together constituting about 45 per cent of the state’s electorate — to write his phenomenal success story during the 2009 Lok Sabha and 2010 Assembly elections. He spiced up his social engineering with relatively better work on almost all fronts of governance — education, health, electricity, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. Besides, he hopes to make further inroads into the state’s 16 per cent Muslim voters following his split with the BJP over Narendra Modi.
But Nitish’s successes thus far have all been in the BJP’s company. Now, he has no friends left. Thus, it is to be seen if he registers as much electoral success alone as he did when he was in the NDA. Poll observers guess that if there was really a “wave” sweeping across the state, it might upset many traditional calculations.
Lalu, despite performing poorly in 2009, still managed to get over 19 per cent of the votes against the JD(U)’s 22 per cent and BJP’s 16 per cent. His vote share came primarily from his traditional base — 14 per cent Yadavs and 16 per cent Muslims, besides a section of the militant upper caste Rajputs. Even the seasoned pollsters agree Lalu — given the nature of his core strength — might not go down below what his party polled in 2009. In the event of a division of votes between the BJP and JD(U), he might emerge as a big beneficiary.
All eyes would be on counting day, May 16, to find out who’s the winner in the high- stake elections.