Every election is a referendum, and in our federal structure, a public verdict on both, the state government and the Central authorities, in New Delhi. They cannot be totally decoupled albeit local issues are usually a predominant factor. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has changed all that. His stentorian speeches, plenteous promises and sardonic lambasting of his opponents, usually mocking their rag-tag coalitions, have changed the dynamics of state elections. Thus, Modi overwhelms prevalent disaffection with state BJP failures with his personal charisma and high credibility canonising voters. It is this X-factor that perhaps makes Nitish Kumar, chief minister since 2003, sport a smug expression.
But behind the masquerade of machismo, Kumar has reasons to be extremely nervous. He knows that in 2015, the Modi wave had already dissipated and Bihar’s formidable 'Mahagathbandhan' (grand alliance of JDU-RJD-Congress and other local outfits), trounced the BJP. Five years later, the script has clearly gone awry, and the usual cockiness of the BJP-JDU (after Nitish did the Brutus act on his alliance partners in 2017) banking on their supreme leader may not be enough. At stake is the first public opinion on the Modi government since the novel coronavirus devastated the world.
The BJP, perennially hungry and a powerful relentless election machine, seems perceptibly nervous despite the media buzz that the Bihar result is a foregone conclusion in favor of the Modi-Kumar pair. Why else would they make the tragic death of young actor Sushant Singh Rajput the central theme of their campaign? It is a manifestation of their apprehension that as the election heat mounts, the common man will return to bread and butter issues (Bihar does not have the luxury of cookies and cheesecakes). Rajput’s poignant story, a self-made Bihari who achieved stardom in the cut-throat world of Bollywood that was allegedly abruptly terminated by an evil cabal that hatched a macabre plot has been the season’s most popular potboiler.
Modi knows by the experience of his several disasters (demonetisation, GST execution, NPA crisis, Chinese incursions, draconian lockdown, economic meltdown) that have had no electoral catastrophe for him that nothing works better than an easy to comprehend issue, one which is pregnant with emotions. Modi packages anger and pain with preternatural panache; he can manipulate feelings and sentiments like a confident sorcerer (chaiwala, neech, Pulwama, Balakot, kaala dhan, corruption, the list is long) before a gullible audience. Rajput can be weaponised by him, after all isn’t 'Bihari asmita' (pride) the only real thing? And the half-way mark is 122 seats (243-seat assembly) only.
Where does the BJP get such enormous confidence from, despite a woebegone show, besides the fact that the NDA won 39/40 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections? It has a lot to do with an opposition that is usually late to the party. The problems are gargantuan; rapid escalation of an uncontrolled virus, now crossing 5 million all-India (Bihar is faring dismally on account of a pathetic health ecosystem; it has only 0.11 beds for every 1,000 people and just 0.39 doctors), record 45-year high unemployment (Bihar suffers even more as 58 per cent of its 110 million population is below 25 years of age), serious rural distress (88 per cent of Bihar lives in villages in the country’s third-most populated state), and an economy that has already shrunk by a humongous 24 per cent (Bihar’s woes can be understood by its low GDP per capita, at just Rs 38,000).
In a perfectly competitive situation, the opposition would have its nostrils tilted upwards, sniffing triumph. But the RJD-Congress arrangement is yet to gather momentum. In characteristic BJP style, Modi has announced the setting up of the storied All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Darbhanga, the import of which no perceptive political observer will miss. This is standard Modi-speak; raise expectations by announcing grand projects, and then let rhetorical theatrics take over. No 'special status' was given to Bihar, and despite the 'Make in India' razzamatazz, Bihar has failed to attract private investment, with industry contributing just 5 per cent to the state’s economy.
The pity is that the opposition remains in a reactive mode. While the RJD has a substantial loyal voter influence, it is the Congress which needs to step up (it was in power right till 1990), as the RJD unfortunately seems enervated, instead of energetic, with the loss of prominent leaders to the BJP. Instead of hanging on to the Yadav family’s coattails, Congress needs to throw in the whole kitchen sink in the Bihar elections and augment prospects of the coalition’s fightback. But will it? Even if it will be a junior partner to the RJD, it must not play second fiddle in setting the political narrative. Or else it will be another wasted opportunity.
While a win will understandably reinvigorate Congress cadres, a defeat will have calamitous consequences. Because the state is in acute distress. Floods have ravaged lives (this year's deluge has swamped 1,232 panchayats across 16 districts). Bihar’s millions of migrants will never overcome the unforgettable frightening nightmare at the hands of a callous, indifferent Modi government when returning back to their homes. And the ugly bestiality of the rapes of young girls in the Muzaffarpur shelter home was a national mortification for Bihar’s lousy administration.
If the Congress-RJD cannot convert such monumental faux pas of the BJP-JDU, then they have a frail alliance and a flawed strategy. Or just very low self-confidence. They should take inspiration from the 82-year-old veteran leader Yashwant Sinha, who is touring the state and exposing the government’s failures.
For the Congress, the stakes are a lot more. Because a BJP win will allow its spin masters to propagate that India’s GDP slump is just an exogenous shock and awe to the system and the coronavirus was frightened of the boy from Vadnagar.