If the opinion polls are right (big assumption!) then the election in Bihar is too close to call. And if indeed the voters of Bihar are still hesitant about handing out a decisive mandate, it is for one reason alone. And it has nothing to do with the complicated caste politics of the state. It is simply that Biharis are not being offered their first preference. In 2005 and 2010, Bihar handed a clear mandate to a JD(U)-BJP coalition. By most accounts, the coalition government led by Nitish Kumar, and ably assisted by Sushil Modi satisfied the electorate with their performance. Statistics suggest that Bihar registered a remarkable period of double-digit economic growth and general well being (after the jungle raj of Lalu’s RJD) under the coalition. There is little doubt that if the JD(U) and BJP were still in coalition, the mandate of 2015 would have been emphatic.
But Nitish Kumar’s giant ego came in the way. Nitish Kumar had no hesitation in praising Narendra Modi to the sky even after the Gujarat riots of 2002. But he could not bear to see a fellow Chief Minister aspire to Prime Ministerial office, not ahead of him in any case. In 2013, Nitish resurrected the ghosts of 2002 to placate his ego, and not for any ideological reasons. He could not deny Modi the nation’s highest executive office. He ended up denying himself a comfortable ride into a third term in office in Bihar (and a potentially powerful role at the Centre). And he robbed Bihar’s people of their first choice government.
The reality is that Bihar’s voters want both Nitish and Modi (Narendra and Sushil). But they have to choose. The choice is made tougher by the BJP choosing not to anoint a Chief Ministerial candidate. Narendra Modi isn’t going to govern Bihar if the BJP wins. And Nitish is a known quantity. The choice is tough because the most popular CM candidate, Nitish Kumar, has allied himself with two deeply unpopular parties, the RJD and Congress.
Perhaps, if the BJP had named the other Modi, Sushil, as CM candidate it would have had the clear edge. Perhaps if Nitish had eschewed an alliance with a corrupt and discredited Congress (if not Lalu, who still has a vote base), he would have had the edge.
This columnist would give BJP the edge. Voters in Bihar still have horrid memories of the 15 years of RJD rule, which took the state back to the dark ages. There is no doubt that Lalu would exercise enormous influence over a future Nitish government. He would likely populate it with one or more of his progeny. On the other hand, the BJP has power at the Centre for the next three and a half years. And it may make sense to voters to elect a government of the same party to extract maximum benefit. Needless to say, caste configurations will play a role, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the final say belongs to the state’s young voters, who are likely to transcend caste and community considerations when they vote. Narendra Modi still retains a strong appeal in this segment.
In the end, the stakes for Nitish Kumar are the highest. If he wins, he could become the centre of anti-BJP politics. If he loses, it could well end his political career. On 8 November, we will know the final outcome of the Bihar Chief Minister’s ego trip.