Whom will Bihar choose?

Modi-Nitish battle: Series of blunders by BJP may have pushed NDA onto the back foot

Whom will Bihar choose?
Touted as the mother of all electoral battles, the Bihar election began as a fierce contest between the NDA and the Nitish Kumar-led Grand Alliance. Three phases of polling is over and the remaining two phases has kept everyone on tenterhooks. Analysts say the Grand Alliance is having a clear edge at this stage and that the NDA, after a perceived initial edge, is on the back foot.

Come November 8, the country will know who among the two leaders – Nitish Kumar or Narendra Modi - is the winner in the fiercely fought battle of Bihar.

The election, which began as a contest between the BJP-led NDA and Nitish-led “Mahagatbandhan” or Grand Alliance, gradually turned into a slugfest between the two arch rivals, Modi and Nitish. The BJP’s alliance partners Ram Vilas Paswan (LJP), Jitan Ram Manjhi (HAM) and Upendra Kushwaha (RLSP) took a back seat as Modi spewed venom day after day on his three opponents – Nitish (JD-U), Lalu Prasad (RJD) and Sonia Gandhi (Congress), whom he also tagged as the “3 idiots”.

The more he used uncharitable language against his rivals, the more the BJP seems to be losing its well-cultivated ground in a state where it was in the fray as a major player for the first time since the party came into existence in 1980.

So close was the contest that till the first phase of polling on October 12, it was virtually impossible for any political pundit to forecast which of the two alliances could emerge victorious. But after three rounds of voting, the BJP insiders have started admitting that the NDA is losing the battle, notwithstanding its leaders putting up a brave front and claiming that “we will get two-thirds majority.”

It all began with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat reiterating, not once but twice, that time had come “to review the provisions of reservation.” In a caste-ridden state like Bihar, the two regional chieftains from OBC category, Lalu and Nitish, exploited Bhagwat’s assertion in an optimum manner and gradually turned the tide in their favour.

The BJP, which started its grand-scale poll campaign two months in advance, just did not know how to counter the faux pas committed by the RSS chief. Modi, in speech after speech, tried to dispel the notion on reservation. But a large segment of the weaker section was not ready to buy his logic.

The Grand Alliance leaders, however, insist that more than Bhagwat, it was BJP chief Amit Shah who shot in his foot much before the battle had begun. “The issue of caste or reservation was not initially raked by Laluji. Shah proudly proclaimed that it was his party which gave India its first OBC prime minister in the form of Modi (H D Deve Gowda was the first from the community). But prior to this claim, did we ever discuss the caste of any PM or President,” said Nitish. He added that if somebody rakes up such emotive issues, then it will have an equal and opposite reaction.

Political observers attribute this bonhomie between Lalu and Nitish which has worked to the advantage of the Grand Alliance where Lalu’s vote base and Nitish’s image of an effective leader (who could provide good governance), has helped the Mahagatbandhan to possibly steal a march over NDA. In contrast, Paswan, Manjhi and Kushwaha, much to the surprise of even BJP leaders, have of late developed cold feet and are into electioneering for name sake.

Till a fortnight ago, the scene was perceived to be quite a contrast. At most of the places, people appreciated Nitish for good governance but disapproved his decision to go along with Lalu. They apprehended return of the dark days of the RJD regime. It was then left to Nitish to convince the electorate how a division in non-BJP votes would help the NDA much like the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He also convinced everyone that Lalu has changed a lot and has not interfered in the functioning of his government despite backing it from outside.

Rainbow coalition

On the other hand, the NDA, which started on a sound note and created a rainbow coalition of Dalits, Kushwahas and Mahadalits, through Paswan, Kushwaha and Manjhi respectively, apart from its own cadre base (mostly upper castes and Vaishyas from OBC), suddenly lost the plot, say many analysts. This happened when the extremely backward classes, also called Pachpaniya (because of 55 castes and sub-castes) split vertically.

When a strong section decided to throw its weight behind Nitish-Lalu, it added muscle to the Grand Alliance’s numerical strength. The Muslims, Yadavs and Kurmis (together account for 36 per cent of voters) stood behind the Mahagatbandhan like a rock, much to the amusement of BJP which made an unsuccessful bid to play Yadav card by promoting leaders like Ram Kripal Yadav, Bhupendra Yadav and Nand Kishore Yadav. Not only Yadavs are seen to be standing solidly by Lalu, the Mahadalits, obliged by Nitish’s largesse over the last five years, are said to have shifted their allegiance to the Grand Alliance, with the sole exception of Magadh region where they still swear by Manjhi).

With electoral chemistry not working, the BJP’s poll arithmetic went for a toss. In frustration, Modi used terms like shaitan, ahankari, bimaru and virus against his opponents. Being a highly centralised party now, no one in the BJP had the guts to tell Modi that after his DNA slur against Nitish, more uncharitable remarks from a person holding the post of the PM would go against him.

The slugfest worsened when Modi made objectionable remarks against Lalu’s daughter Misa Bharti. This infuriated Lalu and Misa, who is micro-managing party affairs from behind the curtains, who launched a full-throttled war against Modi. Misa even threatened Modi to sue him if he failed to apologise.

When it comes to using objectionable language in political speeches, Lalu, too, was found unsparing. But Nitish has emerged the best among the lot by maintaining decency in speeches throughout. “Even if you provoke me, I won’t stoop to that level,” said Nitish when asked to react on PM Modi’s ‘3 idiots’ jibe at him. “Thank you, This is all I would tell the PM. The more Modi speaks, the more he lowers the dignity of the post he holds,” he quipped.

As the war of words continues, Bihar has entered the fourth phase of polling. The last two phases (November 1 and November 5) will see voting in 112 constituencies. Voters in most of these Muslim-dominated areas of north and north-east Bihar have kept the leaders on tenterhooks. All eyes are now on November 8.

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