Bihar Polls: This Is Why The Going Has Got Tougher For Nitish Kumar On Election-Eve

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Oct 26, 2020 08:51 AM
Bihar Polls: This Is Why The Going Has Got Tougher For Nitish Kumar On Election-Eve

Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav.
Snapshot
  • While Nitish Kumar is banking on the peoples' fear of a return to RJD 'jungle raj', the truth is that his own last term has been lacklustre.

    With unemployment reaching record levels, Bihari youth are a dissatisfied lot, and may look to 'punish' the CM for his administrative indolence.

    With both sides having solid chinks in their armour, the contest will be tight.

Till even a few days ago, Bihar appeared to be headed for a straight electoral contest between NDA and the Grand Alliance (GA) with Nitish Kumar set to become the Chief Minister for the fourth straight term.

But with just two days to go for the first phase of the polls scheduled for Wednesday (28 October), things seem less certain for Kumar.

A momentum seems to be building up in favour of the GA, especially its chief ministerial candidate Tejashwi Yadav. And the poll campaign of Nitish Kumar, who is battling anti-incumbency, appears to have lost considerable steam.

Nitish Kumar has been coming across as jaded and quite listless, and even his attacks on the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) — the dominant partner in the GA — lacked the required punch.

Reviving Memories Of RJD’s Jungle Raj

Kumar has been harping on the ‘jungle raj’ in Bihar during the 15 years of RJD rule from 1990 to 2005. He has also been attacking the culture of dynastic politics in the RJD.

While it is true that Bihar had slid into horrifying lawlessness characterised by criminal gangs having a free run kidnapping, murdering, raping and extorting resources from a terror-stricken and hapless populace of the state, few youngsters remember those years of horror.

Also, many feel that Nitish Kumar has been rewarded adequately for ending the RJD’s reign of terror by being re-elected in 2010 and 2015.

He needs to now be 'punished' for his below-par performance in his third term.

Kumar’s lacklustre third term (2015 to 2020) and the state slipping on many development indices — thus triggering severe disappointment and disaffection among Biharis — is an immediate issue.

Nitish Kumar has been trying his best to remind the people of the dark days of RJD rule and warning them against Bihar returning to that era if the RJD is voted back to power.

Kumar’s Lacklustre Performance

But that dire warning is finding increasingly few takers. Kumar’s perceived non-performance in his third term is rankling the electorate.

For the youngsters, who form a substantial segment of Bihar’s electorate, issues like education, jobs and economic progress are important.

And it is precisely on these counts that Nitish Kumar is perceived to have failed to deliver. The lockdown-triggered reverse migration of an estimated 26 lakh workers back to Bihar and the state’s tepid response in providing relief to them is fresh in people’s collective memory.

The reverse migration also put the focus on the abysmal lack of employment opportunities in Bihar.

The state has one of the country’s highest unemployment rates. A recent Periodic Labour Force Survey by the National Statistical Office revealed that between July 2018 and June 2019, Bihar witnessed one of the country’s highest youth unemployment rates at 30.9 per cent, next to Kerala (35.2 per cent).

The RJD has tapped into this discontent among the youth and is championing their cause. That has struck an instant chord among the youth, as is evident from the large and enthusiastic crowds that the Yadav scion (Tejashwi Yadav) has been drawing.

Tejaswi's barbs against Nitish Kumar — that he is ‘tired’ and ‘unfit to govern’ any more — has been drawing huge applause all over the state.

The RJD’s electoral promises have, apparently, enthused the youth. Apart from promising 10 lakh jobs, the RJD has promised waiver of all application fees for government jobs, 85 per cent reservation of government jobs for Bihari youth and a monthly unemployment allowance of Rs 1,500 for everyone up to 35 years of age.

The RJD has also promised to spend 22 per cent of the state budget on education, development of smart villages and free computer training centres in all panchayats.

Kumar seems to have blundered in mocking the RJD’s promise of providing 10 lakh jobs. He wondered how the RJD will mobilise funds for creating so many jobs.

But the JD(U) itself has promised to create employment opportunities for lakhs of youth. And the BJP has also promised creation of 19 lakh jobs.

But the question remains if the youth will vote across caste lines, motivated by issues of immediate concern to them, or will they vote along caste lines.

If they vote along traditional caste lines, the RJD’s outreach to them would have been in vain.

What is significant here is that Nitish Kumar’s core constituency — the Extremely Backward Classes (EBC) — has been one of the worst affected by the reverse migration crisis.

Of the 26 lakh workers who returned to Bihar during the lockdown due to job losses, 75 per cent belong to the EBCs, who form about 25 per cent of the state’s electorate.

An estimated 20 per cent of those 26 lakh returnees belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Many sections of the SC/ST communities have been supporting Nitish Kumar.

It is worth mentioning here that all Other Backward Castes (OBC), with the exception of four dominant castes among them — the Yadavs, Kurmis, Kushwahas and Koeris — form the bulk of the EBC category comprising 135 castes and sub-castes.

Nitish Kumar, who belongs to the numerically small Kurmi caste, crafted the EBC (Mahadalit) alliance to counter Lalu Yadav’s formidable Muslim-Yadav combination, which had kept the RJD in power for 15 years.

Realising the influence of the EBCs, the RJD has been wooing them as well. The RJD has given tickets to 25 (of the 144 Assembly seats it is contesting from) EBCs, an all-time high.

The JD(U) concedes that while the migrants and the youth have been unhappy with the party, the anger has subsided and they are once again supporting Nitish Kumar.

“People have realised that the pandemic and the migration that the lockdown triggered were not man-made and Nitish Kumar cannot be held responsible. The state government did its best to provide relief,” said a JD(U) principal secretary K.C.Tyagi.

The JD(U) is also banking on caste polarisation that has, according to the party, led to polarisation among EBCs also. This, it claims, will benefit the JD(U).

The JD(U) is also banking on the undiminished popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi among voters. However, as recent elections in states have shown, voters quite often make a clear distinction between Lok Sabha and state elections.

While voters are happy with Modi, the same cannot be said for Nitish Kumar. Thus, they may have flocked to Modi’s three rallies last week and responded enthusiastically to him, but that may not translate into them voting for Nitish Kumar.

Tejashwi Yadav has astutely refrained from attacking Modi, concentrating his firepower against Nitish Kumar instead.

In fact, according to reports from the ground, Rahul Gandhi’s high-decibel attacks on Modi is not going down well with the crowds, as is evident from their non-response to Gandhi’s offensives.

Tejashwi has done well to keep the focus solely on Nitish Kumar.

JD(U) strategists told Swarajya that Nitish Kumar’s pitch against RJD’s ‘jungle raj’ has revived memories of those dark years among huge sections of the electorate.

And that they will remind the younger generation of those days and how Nitish Kumar restored normalcy to Bihar.

It is also not clear if the RJD has succeeded in knitting back, at least partially, the earlier Mandal coalition of all OBCs. If the RJD succeeds in getting the support of even some EBCs, the NDA will suffer.

The Third Front

Another determinant is the influence of the third front — the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), BSP and AIMIM combine — on the electorate. It is widely expected that this coalition will affect the RJD’s prospects, especially in constituencies where Muslims hold sway.

This front — called the Grand Secular Democratic Front (GSDF) — will poach on OBCs, Muslims and SCs (constituencies of RLSP chief Upendra Kushwaha, AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi and BSP’s Mayawati respectively). That will harm the RJD.

The GSDF is expected to cut into the RJD’s support base of OBCs and minorities, especially the Seemanchal belt comprising Kishanganj, Araria and Kaimur and also the Buxar belt, where Muslims are present in large numbers.

The coalescing of Muslim votes in favour of the AIMIM could, in fact, help the NDA.

There are many improbables and uncertainties. But what remains a fact is that the sheen has gone out of Nitish Kumar and a fourth term no longer seems to be a foregone conclusion for him, irrespective of an NDA win.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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