Choice season, from 
Bhagalpur to Baltimore

A lot of poll-watchers are considering the ensuing electoral battles as endgames. So, whether it is in Bihar or in faraway United States, there is an overwhelming sense of impending change because voters may think differently about the choices before them.

But the impact of these elections and the bearing they will have for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India are no doubt far-reaching and have already been hotly debated.

Many on-the-field poll analysts in Bihar have been tempted to see a phenomenal rise of fortune for the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav (after he promised 10 lakh government jobs) and lack of mojo for Nitish Kumar, after 15 years of his government.

Yet, none of them have ventured so far as to openly declare that the swelling crowds at Tejashwi’s rallies will actually propel him and his alliance to the chief minister’s chair.

On the contrary, seasoned poll forecasters have indicated that, despite aggressive opposition, the NDA may still cruise to victory, though securing fewer seats than previously estimated but enough to help it come back to power.

But there is a near-consensus among poll watchers to conclude inevitable diminishment in Nitish’s stature even if he wins a fourth term. That is because he is more than dependent on Modi in this election.

If, as both the Janata Dal (United) and the BJP leaders agree that the Prime Minister’s image is the NDA’s USP in Bihar, any reverses for Nitish will also be more than damaging for Modi’s standing.

Even among the hardline critics of the BJP, there is unanimity that Modi is more popular than anyone in Bihar, and definitely more than Nitish, across castes and regions. If Nitish returns as CM, he will, of course, be more at the mercy of the BJP, which is bound to have more seats in its kitty than the Janata Dal(United).

The speculation is that, ultimately, Nitish may be forced to abdicate to a successor from the BJP and accept a role outside Bihar to stay relevant. Some critics are very disturbed at the very thought of gain for Modi and the BJP after this election.

On the other hand, many BJP loyalists among the voters are upset at the fact Modi is propelling Nitish (when the latter had refused to share stage with him a decade ago) when many voters are angry with him.

Nitish knows he is burdened with his lacklustre performance of the last five years. In comparison, his first ten years as CM was a big improvement over Lalu Prasad Yadav’s record. But in the 2017-2020 period, the state was plagued by floods, influx of migrant labour and, of course, rising levels of unemployment.

Buoyed by Modi’s campaign, Nitish has, however sought to show that he is on top of things after a not-so-satisfactory first round of polling on October 28. His followers hold that Nitish as a brand may be attracting diminishing returns but he is not extinguished as yet and certainly won’t be a pushover. A large number of Extreme Backward Classes (EBCs) and Mahadalits still approve of his governance as they have found a voice under his dispensation’s social engineering.

On the issue of employment, Nitish pooh-poohs Tejashwi, asking, ”Where will you give jobs from? What sort of money do you have? Giving so many jobs will mean paying Rs 1.44 lakh crore annually. Where will you get this money from?”

Since the voters have a poor memory, Nitish has also kept up attacks on Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family, reminding them about the condition in Bihar 15 years ago.

But Bihar’s inability to attract the required capital for starting industries despite Nitish being at the helm, followed by the migrant influx during the pandemic, has no doubt underscored the crisis in the state that has a large section of unskilled and unemployable hands.

Therefore, no BJP or JD(U) leader is taking lightly the threat posed by Tejashwi’s promise of providing 10 lakh government jobs in his very first act as CM. There is definitely a lurking fear that the issue of jobs may really click with a section of the youth.

Yet, caste loyalties and combinations of caste/community of individual candidates leave little scope for a big turnaround in the poll outcome in a state like Bihar, argue anti-changers.

Even as all eyes are riveted on Bihar, 54 assembly seats in around 10 states will also go to polls. Of them, the byelections to the 28 assembly constituencies in Madhya Pradesh are considered most crucial for the future of the BJP.

CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan has to ensure the party wins enough seats to reach the majority mark in the 230-member House.

These bypolls are also important for Jyotiraditya Scindia, who embraced the BJP, pulling down the Congress government under Kamal Nath. His induction into the Union government is pending and the results will decide the further course of his political career.

For four-time CM Chouhan, winning the bypolls is a way of self-redemption as he had lost power in the 2018 assembly elections. In 2018, the Congress won 114 seats, two short of the majority in the 230-member House. The BJP won 109. But, thanks to Kamal Nath, the Congress succeeded in forming the government with the support of four Independents, two BSP MLAs, and one SP MLA. After Scindia took away 22 MLAs and three others followed suit, the Congress’s strength was reduced to 88.

In order to return to power in MP, the Congress has to win all 28 seats, whereas the BJP only needs nine seats to reach the majority mark of 116 in the 230-member House.

In other bypolls, eight constituencies in Gujarat, seven in UP, two each in Odisha, Nagaland, Karnataka and Jharkhand, and one each in Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Haryana will go to polls on November 3. On November 7, polling will be held for two assembly seats in Manipur.

Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, who is busy campaigning for the NDA in Bihar, faces a test of his popularity in the byelections in the state— though there is no big challenge before the 2022 state elections. Unlike Nitish, who has faced flak for his handling of the migrant labour issue, Yogi has handled the influx a lot better. But he has faced criticism over crime against women, particularly after the rape of a Dalit girl in Hathras. Yogi is counting on his government’s track record in implementing several development schemes.

As for other byelections, the ruling parties cannot escape the wrath of the opposition in the event of losing the seats but there won’t be any game-changing situation in their states.

Of course, beyond Bihar and MP, it is the Trump versus Biden battle, billed as the battle for the future of America and the world, that is holding all the attention of the Modi establishment. Whether it is foreign policy affecting equations with China, Pakistan and Iran, or on trade, global economy, immigration, environment and climate change, New Delhi will be watching the shaping of the US electoral college with bated breath, like the rest of us. The hope is that it will not be a long-drawn-out, exasperating process and there will be no internal turmoil.

The writer is former Senior Associate Editor of Hindustan Times and Political Editor of Deccan Herald, New Delhi

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