The Battle for Bihar
The battle for Bihar is heating up. This is a ‘do or die’ election for both Nitish Kumar and his new friend and ally Lalu Prasad Yadav. While it is a battle of survival for this “grand alliance” partners, on the other hand, it is the most strategically crucial and politically critical elections for the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
This is the election that will decide the road ahead for BJP and also test whether the Narendra Modi Wave is still thriving in the Hindi heartland or if it has faded away with time and negative perceptions created by its opponents and helped by print and TV media.
Based on the 2014 Lok Sabha election votes, contesting separately, the Janata Parivar alliance could have defeated BJP plus alliance (NDA) in only 70 assembly seats out of 243. This is the plain fact that compelled long-time foes to join hands and turn friends. After this unholy alliance contesting together, the “secular” alliance has the arithmetic potential to win as many as 160 seats (based on votes cast in 2014 election). But an election in a complex state like Bihar doesn’t rest on arithmetic alone. Three weeks ago, the NDA was in a strong position despite a much bigger-looking grand alliance in opposition.
Both the BJP allies, Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) of Ram Vilas Paswan and Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) of Upendra Kushwaha declared that there is no confusion over the Chief Ministerial candidate and the alliance will take a decision on it after the election results. The BJP also announced that it will contest the election under Narendra Modi’s name which in my opinion was the best way forward and try to create a fight between Nitish and Modi. Jitan Ram Manjhi joining the alliance added marginal, but an incremental strength to the NDA. Another good news for the NDA was the BSP president Mayawati announcing that her party would contest the Bihar assembly election with ‘full preparation and strength’.
In the run-up to any election, the most evident and telling proof of which party/alliance is in the lead is the contest between aspirants seeking a party/alliance’s ticket. In the majority of the constituencies, it clearly indicated that the BJP and the NDA alliance had the top position. From here on, if anyone could defeat NDA, it can only be the BJP and its think tanks.
In the last few weeks, some important developments have taken place–some expected, some beyond comprehension, some controllable and some uncontrollable. What is beyond comprehension is this: it seems the central leadership of the BJP and the state campaign team under Ananth Kumar is totally uninterested in the Bihar assembly elections.
First, making Ananth Kumar the party’s convener of Bihar polls was a blunder. But the foremost among all problems is the missing campaign face. If the BJP had planned to contest the elections on the Narendra Modi brand, he should have been there, visible, communicating to the Bihari junta directly. But he didn’t: not even once since April 2014.
There cannot be a more airtight election than this. The battle is going to be fierce and the outcome no psephologist can predict. In such a scenario, in the last few weeks, the BJP is losing ground in the campaign battle and in occupying the mind-space of the electorate.
With the Yadav vote bank of Lalu Yadav drifting away from him one by one, he very smartly chose to play the second fiddle to Nitish Kumar, keeping intact the key Muslim votes (15-16 per cent) in one bag. This is a masterstroke that will help Nitish Kumar hold his core voters with him if Lalu Yadav is not pitching himself alongside Nitish in his campaign.
This is no fault of BJP if Lalu chooses to somehow remain politically alive despite being under the shadow of his arch political enemy Nitish. Knowing the ruthless politician that Lalu Yadav is, this sounds incomprehensible, but this the situation right now, which may change overnight.
They “secular alliance” is playing the classic game of if you can’t beat them, steal their weapons. Nitish Kumar hired Prashant Kishore, the main pivot for Narendra Modi’s election campaign in the 2014 General Elections. Kishore is credited for devising innovative strategies like “Chai Pe Charcha” and the 3D hologram campaign. The same team is now hired by the Bihar Government and given the task of launching Bihar Government’s campaign “Badh Chala Bihar”.
Though the Election Commission stopped the “Badh Chala Bihar” campaign, which Nitish was pushing through state government, this campaign has penetrated well in Bihar. Right now, Kishore and his team are also given the task to manage the JDU’s election campaign strategies. Copying anyone’s style or idea may or may not work. But slogans? Ironically, even that seems to be working. JDU launched ‘Parcha Par Charcha’ some time back, resembling the BJP’s ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ in the run-up to 2014 LS polls. Not very surprisingly, it has also coined a slogan ‘Fir Ek Baar, Nitish Kumar’ by copy pasting Narendra Modi’s key election slogan “Abki Bar, Modi Sarkar’. It all seems to be working right now and today in Bihar, Nitish Kumar is everywhere.
On the other hand, a clueless, faceless, leaderless BJP is looking like a bunch of confused parrots. Have you ever seen any prospective chief minister posting newspaper cuttings all day long on Twitter? Wonder who handles his twitter account.
Nandkishore Yadav, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Shahnawaz Hussain and many other state-level leaders are either not visible or campaigning in their own style and of their own choosing. Those who are visible, like Shatrughan Sinha are only bringing negativity to the party. It just does not look like a cohesive unit and the team looks rattled. It’s hard to believe that this is the same BJP, which now ceases to occupy any visibility, was the party that mastered this art just a year ago?
Either Amit Shah has been yet to understand the Bihar matrix or been asked to go slow. This is clearly not helping them, at least not right now. Similar mistakes were committed during the Delhi elections and forgetting any mistake of that election is a blunder in itself.
It is incredible for a party like the BJP to not even match the campaign of a regional party like the JDU. Where the JDU has started a door-to-door campaign in thousands of locations in Bihar, the BJP’s campaign is not even active in 243 locations (total number of constituencies). In a state where the BJP leaders are unable to occupy any visibility or space in people’s mind, the only good sign for them is that the public themselves are asking JDU workers in their ‘Har Ghar Dastak’ program “why did you join hands with Lalu?”.
Bihar cannot be a personality centric election. If it happens, the BJP still has an upper hand. But right now it looks like there is no contest. The BJP’s campaign is way behind. If Amit Shah thinks, that one fine day Narendra Modi will land in Bihar and announce major packages for the state and Biharis will get swooned, I can only feel sorry for him.
Nitish would only be happier hearing the announcement of such a package than the voters. Biharis need direct interaction, passionate speeches, thrashing of Lalu-Nitish’s unholy alliance from none other than their beloved leader’s mouth. Sooner the better.
The contours of the Bihar battlefield were in favor of BJP. The core voters of Nitish, in particular, voted not only for Nitish but also to keep Lalu at bay. With them joining hands, the BJP only needed a gentle nudge to have them over to their side. Unfortunately, it looks to be falling short of even these minimal efforts.
The BJP was always aware that the misinformation campaign (for example the Land Bill) was pursued with an eye on Bihar election. The party’s lethargy, a late entry on the field, and lack of aggression will ensure that the party ends up spending time answering the frivolous allegations made against it every other day.
The BJP is missing out a solid chance. Is it an outcome of complacency that seems to have paralyzed it post the phenomenal victory in May 2014? As things go now, the answer is yes.