Whose Bihar is it anyway?

The thrust of PM Modi’s campaign has been large rallies in what Nitish Kumar terms a ‘hit and run’ campaign. The chief minister’s own campaign has been quiet, constituency by constituency, as he seeks to make contact with voters directly. 

Polling has started in Bihar for what is perceived as a ‘make or break’ election for both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal(U) led grand alliance. An indication of its importance comes from the hectic campaign in the state by no less a person than Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is covering all the districts in what is a mega effort by any standards.

Interestingly, the voter in Bihar is very aware of his importance in these elections and speaks of the same with some relish. He is also aware of the effort being put in by PM Modi, even as he reaches out to praise Chief Minister Nitish Kumar whose popularity in the state has to be seen to be believed. This is perhaps the first election this columnist has covered in the north Indian belt where an incumbent chief minister is more popular than the opposition. Everyone is singing Nitish Kumar’s praises, even those who openly say they will not be voting for him. Why? Because he has done so much for the state, and the voters start listing his achievements from roads and electricity to cycles for girls to uniforms and books for school students.

Those who are not voting for him include those who are either upset with his alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav; or are ideologically with the BJP; or are supporting one of its allies in the state. This section is dominated by the forward castes and some extremely backward castes.

The thrust of PM Modi’s campaign has been large rallies in what Nitish Kumar terms a ‘hit and run’ campaign. The chief minister’s own campaign has been quiet, constituency by constituency, as he seeks to make contact with voters directly. As he says, his effort is to cover every constituency before these go to the polls in each phase. His workers are out on a house to house campaign as are those of the RJD, and judging from the rural response this seems to be striking home.

The consolidated vote of the Yadavs, Kurmis and Muslims behind the grand alliance is also very vocal. And as many a voter from these sections said, “you remember what happened in Delhi (referring to the Aam Aadmi victory). We also have the jharu to clean up our state.” Many took some delight in telling this reporter that “you people from the media had no idea what was happening in Delhi; you thought the BJP would win and AAP came in.” And all those who were around chuckled in solidarity.

It is a tough battle, even more so for the BJP now that the communal card it tried to raise having fizzled out completely. There are no takers in Bihar for the beef controversy, and again in the little townships the villagers—regardless of who they were voting for—went out of their way to point out that all is peaceful here, we have no problems; there are no tensions. “This is Bihar you know, we live together in peace,” was the unbroken refrain.

The uncertain vote bank is largely of the Dalits, Mahadalits and the extremely backward. Uncertain really as it is a quieter vote, and not talking openly as it is aware of the growing pressure from both sides. The upper castes insist that this vote is largely with the BJP, while the others are equally certain that it remains with the grand alliance. What is certain is that there is a split here, which might however not be when it goes on the final day to vote. On the last day usually confused vote banks tend to consolidate with minimal divisions within. This is also adding to the uncertainty that will now be clear only on the counting day.

All in all it is an intense election. The results will give a major fillip to the victor. If the BJP wins it will see this as a referendum for its policies, with the RSS whose cadres are working across Bihar also reading it in similar fashion. If the grand alliance wins, Nitish Kumar will emerge as the prime ministerial candidate for perhaps the entire opposition in the next polls. It will also boost sagging opposition morale, and lead to new alliances and consolidations at the national level.

The Bihar voter, thus, holds more than his own future in his (her) hand.

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