New Delhi: It’s interesting to see the change in the Bihar narrative. Initially, even before the campaigning began, the foregone conclusion was that despite his 15 years of anti-incumbency, the Covid mishandling and the lack of development, state Chief Minister Nitish Kumar would still make a comeback simply because there was no opposition. The RJD was a divided house, with Lalu Yadav’s progeny fighting amongst themselves; there were defections to the JDU as leaders lost faith in the GenNext Yadavs. Moreover, Tejashwi hadn’t distinguished himself in the recent general elections when he led the party to a rout. So, it was more or less understood that Nitish and the NDA would have a walkover. Any challenge that came, was from within the NDA when Chirag Paswan broke away. When he announced that like Hanuman, he carried a picture Narendra Modi on his chest (if not on his campaign posters) and so would only contest the seats which had JDU candidates, and not ones that were in the BJP’s kitty, it was obvious that he was no more than the BJP’s B-Team.
That was also the first sign that perhaps the road to a comeback was not so smooth for the JDU leader. Interestingly, the BJP also took out a separate manifesto and there were no joint Nitish Kumar-Narendra Modi hoardings in the first phase of campaign. It seemed as if social distancing had taken on a political sub-text as the NDA literally fought three separate campaigns.
Then something changed as young Tejashwi Yadav hit the ground with his rallies. He settled his family feud with his siblings, distanced himself from the family baggage and erased both Lalu Yadav and Rabri Devi from RJD posters. The message was clear: there would be no overtones of the jungle raaj that the Lalu era was known for and which Nitish Kumar raised in every rally. Instead the RJD campaign focused on new age issues. Tejashwi was the first leader to talk of jobs and initially the BJP mocked his promise of ten lakh government jobs annually. However, they soon realised that in a post Covid era at a time of reverse migration when the youth was looking for jobs within their own state, this had hit a chord. And so the party flew in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to release its manifesto with a promise of 19 lakh jobs annually. The party realised that talk of an esoteric concept of nationalism, Article 370 and CAA was not getting as much traction as Tejashwi’s poll pitch and adjusted its narrative accordingly. Whether the voter trusts the BJP more to deliver the jobs or the RJD, remains to be seen—but at least young Tejashwi has managed to get jobs back on the poll agenda. And in caste ridden Bihar that is no mean feat. More to the point, the election no longer looked like a walkover for Nitish Kumar.
The NDA may still scrape through, for all opinion polls give them the edge. But this is mostly because of Prime Minister Modi and not because of the JDU. For some reason, even the migrants who walked all the way back to their home state from Delhi and Mumbai, still trust the Prime Minister and do not blame him for their troubles. Their faith in him remains as unshaken as it did during the hardships of demonetisation. There is anger, of course, but it is directed at Nitish Kumar and his bureaucrats, not the PM. The Twitterati may have mocked the BJP promise of a free vaccine for all Biharis but this too seems to have hit a chord on the ground, with Shivraj Singh Chouhan quickly following suit. With no face at the state level, the BJP is fighting the Bihar election on the PM’s charisma alone. And towards the fag end of the campaign it does look as if the JDU is as well. Suddenly we hear Nitish Kumar talking about the Centre’s achievements, not his own. And he seems to have persuaded the BJP to share hoarding space with him for just after the first phase of voting there are advertisements showing both Modi and Nitish together. If Modi manages to swing this election the NDA’s way then West Bengal gets all the more interesting as it goes to polls next year with the formidable Mamata Banerjee as the BJP’s main contender.
As for Bihar, whatever the verdict, one thing is clear—this is Nitish Kumar’s last election. Tejashwi has given an impressive audition and will certainly remain a player on the Bihar arena, as will Chirag Paswan. With a large chunk of its voters below the age of 40, these elections are a curtain call for the JP era of politicians. Hopefully, a new generation will also bring with it a new grammar of politics. We have seen the signs, one hopes the message is here to stay.