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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 17 July 2024

Supporters do a 'Paltu' on Nitish Kumar: Repeated flip-flops chip away at JDU chief's credibility

A key narrative of this general election in Bihar has been the fading out of Nitish, with the BJP and the RJD competing to grab his Dalit, extremely backward caste (EBC) and lower-rung OBC support base

J.P. Yadav Patna-Jehanabad Published 26.05.24, 05:42 AM
An elderly voter shows her inked finger at a polling booth in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, on Saturday. 

An elderly voter shows her inked finger at a polling booth in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, on Saturday.  PTI

Ramesh Kumar Mahto, an OBC Kushwaha youth orphaned by the Laxmanpur Bathe massacre of 1997, blames the RJD for the Ranvir Sena killings. He has always staunchly supported Nitish Kumar.

But not any more. “Nitishji ‘Paltu Ram’ hai,” he says with a smile, using a disparaging coinage that flags the JDU leader and chief minister’s frequent political somersaults. Ramesh now prefers Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “Modi achha hai (Modi is good).”

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A key narrative of this general election in Bihar has been the fading out of Nitish, with the BJP and the RJD competing to grab his Dalit, extremely backward caste (EBC) and lower-rung OBC support base.

Nitish, who had in yet another U-turn dumped the RJD and returned to the BJP’s arms in late January, finds himself forlorn and pushed to the margins.

The BJP had rushed to welcome him back, belying its previous claim of having “shut the door” on Nitish, but now seems to be cold-shouldering him. After the first few joint rallies, Nitish has been absent from Modi’s stage, as though “unwelcome”.

Stories have been swirling in the Patna air about the chief minister’s “deteriorating mental health” and about the BJP virtually shunning him. Nitish has been holding solo rallies, where he harps on how he has turned Bihar around over the past two decades and hits out at the “dynasty politics” of Lalu Prasad’s RJD.

Neither Nitish nor his rhetoric is, however, getting much traction in the local media — or social media — and even JDU candidates have been seeking votes in Modi’s name rather than their leader’s.

“Nitishji has turned into a ‘mulyaheen neta’ (valueless leader). His repeated flip-flops have cost him his credibility, and his support base too is drifting away,” said Prem Kumar Mani, a close associate of Nitish for decades.

Mani said that most of Nitish’s supporters were tilting towards the BJP, while a smaller segment was leaning towards the RJD.

Some 90km south of Patna, in Laxmanpur Bathe, a group of women nod as they hear 26-year-old Ramesh speak about switching loyalties from Nitish to Modi. The women say they have only been hearing “Modi ka halla (buzz about Modi)” this election.

Ramesh, a contract labourer at an LED bulb factory in Noida, was just six months old when the outlawed upper caste Bhumihar militia, the Ranvir Sena, raided his village on the night of December 1, 1997, and killed 58 people. The victims were mostly Dalit women and children apart from some OBCs, like his family members.

It was the biggest massacre in the bloody saga that played out in the 1990s between the banned Maoist outfits and the upper castes’ private armies in the region. The hamlet was targeted for allegedly sheltering Maoists.

Ramesh lost both his parents and an aunt to the indiscriminate firing by the attackers and was brought up by his grandparents. Twenty-six years later, he finds himself in the same camp — that of Modi — as the Bhumihar landlords of the Jehanabad Lok Sabha seat.

The only difference is that the Bhumihars, for all their love of Modi’s muscular nationalism and Hindutva plank, are angry at the BJP for opening its door to Nitish again.

“Vidhan Sabha se pehle Paltu Ram phir udhar bhagenge (Nitish will again switch sides before the Assembly elections),” says Niranjan Kumar, a Bhumihar in Arwal market.

The Bhumihars also resent the NDA’s choice of candidate: Chandeshwar Prasad of the JDU, an EBC politician. Many Bhumihars say they would vote for an Independent candidate from their own caste.

Assembly elections in Bihar are scheduled at the end of next year, and the outcome of the Lok Sabha polls could set off another round of political realignment in the state.

Privately, BJP managers say the NDA might lose a few seats in Bihar — mostly from the JDU’s share. The BJP is contesting 17 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats, leaving 16 for the JDU, 5 for the LJP (Paswan) and one each for two smaller partners.

“Our leadership may have committed a mistake by giving 16 seats to Nitish’s party,” a key BJP leader in Patna said. He added that the BJP might claim the chief minister’s chair after the Assembly polls.

Ramesh, though, has no issue with the JDU candidate and says he would vote for
him to make Modi Prime Minister again.

Jai Naraian Chowdhury, his neighbour in Laxmanpur Bathe and a member of the EBC Mallah caste, said he would vote for the RJD.

The Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), led by Bollywood set designer turned politician Mukesh Sahani, is championing the cause of his Mallah caste. Once a BJP ally, the VIP is now part of the RJD-led Opposition alliance.

Dalit and EBC hamlets on the road from Patna to Arwal and Jehanabad too appear split between the BJP and the RJD, with the majority leaning towards Modi, mainly because of the free rations scheme.

The Dalits, in particular, are furious with Nitish for enforcing prohibition since 2016.

“We are poor labourers and need some alcohol to relax and sleep after the day’s hard work. The police frequently raid our hamlet and clamp fines of up to 10,000,” said Buddhu Paswan of Kanpa village (Pataliputra constituency). He said he would vote “lantern”, the RJD’s election symbol.

Jehanabad and Patliputra vote on June 1

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