New Delhi: The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar is mounting a serious challenge to the ruling NDA that is going into the forthcoming Bihar election with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar as its face and 15 years of anti-incumbency.

Party leaders from the RJD and BJP, who spoke to The Sunday Guardian on the “political atmosphere” on the ground, stated that the 15 years of anti-incumbency that Nitish Kumar was carrying, coupled with the lack of development, especially in building infrastructure related to public utilities in the rural and semi-urban areas of the state, is hurting “brand Nitish” more strongly than is visible to the naked eye. The state’s inadequate infrastructure, according these observers, had been exposed during the inundation of Patna last year and more recently in the way the state’s health facilities had crumbled in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, with people dying on the streets due to lack of care.

According to these leaders and independent political observers, if the ticket distribution by RJD’s de facto president Tejashwi Yadav, who has been the leader of the Opposition since 2017, is done “properly” and tickets are given to “clean” candidates, the party is likely to win more than 100 seats of the 243 Bihar Assembly seats. The party had won 80 seats of the 101 it had contested in 2015.

Since 2005, when the state witnessed its first election post the separation of Jharkhand, the state has seen four Assembly elections. (Twice in 2005, once in February and then again in October; then in 2010 and the last in 2015). In all these four elections, the RJD’s vote share has more or less stayed in the band of 18-25%. The party got 25% vote in the February 2005 polls, 23.45% in October, 18.84% in 2010 and 18.4% in the 2015 polls.

According to Patna-based political observers, following the emergence of Narendra Modi, a section of Yadav voters, who constitute around 15% to 18% of the total population of the state, had started voting for the NDA, especially in the 2019 general elections.

“In 2019, Tejashwi Yadav was still ‘emerging’ and with Lalu Yadav being in prison and out of sight, the Yadav voters decided to go with Modi due to the Balakot factor, road construction and other significant work carried out by the power and gas ministry that made a direct impact on the lives of the voters. However, this might not hold true in this election. There is a negative sentiment against the Nitish Kumar government and Tejashwi Yadav has established himself as the de facto president of the RJD. Those who were clubbed as RJD dissenters by Delhi media have been sidelined. The election is shaping into a Tejashwi Yadav against Nitish Kumar battle, with the BJP in the background. It is a known fact that a section of BJP leaders and workers, too, are not happy with the Nitish Kumar government and the BJP’s high command’s decision to make him the face of the NDA,” a Patna-based political observer said.

Leaders from both the BJP and the RJD told The Sunday Guardian that Tejashwi Yadav is yet to convince the voters, that if he comes to power, he was going to give a “clean government” and one which will not have criminal elements in the government. This, according to these leaders, was the biggest fear that the voters have in their mind regarding the RJD, a fear which the BJP too has been focusing on during its campaigning while reminding the voters of the “15 years of Lalu Raj”.

In the first week of July, Tejashwi Yadav, who is deciding every important matter related to party affairs with inputs from his father Lalu Yadav who is in prison in Ranchi, had apologised for “mistakes” that happened in the 15 years when his father and mother were the CM, a period which had gained national attention due to the lack of law and order in the state.

“That is one stigma the RJD is still carrying (of protecting and nurturing criminals) and Tejashwi Yadav needs to tackle it by expressly stating that he is not going to give ticket to any leader who has criminal back-ground. There are many ticket seekers with criminal background, who are seeking RJD tickets because of the money that they have and the strong prospect of RJD coming to power. If Tejashwi Yadav succumbs to their offers, it will demolish the strong chance the RJD has right now (to win the elections). ‘Brand Nitish’ has lost its lustre and in many places, people are waiting for the RJD-led Grand-Alliance to announce its candidates before deciding whether to vote for it or not. This is a massive change, as earlier, irrespective of the candidates, voters would say that they will vote for Nitish Kumar,” a RJD general secretary, who has been given the charge of multiple seats for the election and has visited and interacted with voters of at least 10 Assembly seats without revealing his identity to the people, told The Sunday Guardian.

Similar observations were also shared by a senior BJP functionary who is a part of the newly appointed election campaign committee of the party. “There is no doubt that we are facing strong anti-incumbency. Even our MLAs have conveyed these inputs, multiple times, to our senior leaders. The voters, on many seats, are dissatisfied with Nitish Kumar’s rule. If Tejashwi Yadav is able to make people believe that he will not be running a government of and for criminals, we might find ourselves in a big mess. Ticket distribution for both the alliance will play a key role in this election,” the BJP functionary said.

According to leaders from both the RJD and the BJP, Tejashwi Yadav had become an acceptable name among the young voters. “The BJP and the JDU in the state have been working with the same ‘old’ faces for the last 20-30 years. Tejashwi Yadav, in that context, is a new entrant. The only baggage that he is carrying is that RJD has developed an image of being a party that supports criminals. If Tejashwi Yadav is able to break this image, the RJD is likely to cross 100 plus seats. The caste factor will always be crucial in Bihar polls, but this time it will not be the only factor that decides who will win. In urban seats, there is a lot of visible anger against the ruling MLAs who are from the NDA. The only thing that is likely to save them from losing is if the RJD fails to convince the voters that it will give a clean government and ensure a rule of law and order,” a BJP functionary, who is a ticket hopeful from one of the urban seats, said.