Bihar has many key contests, such as in Patna Sahib, Pataliputra, Karakat, and Sasaram, where the strength of the ruling NDA and the power of the Congress-RJD combine will be tested.
Bihar, which is a crucial battleground state for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), especially after it clinched a deal with Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) in 2016, is still steeped in intricate but obscurantist caste politics.
With 40 seats at stake, this highly-politicised state has regard for Nitish’s no-nonsense politics and inclusive approach, which cuts across caste lines and respect for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma. However, the caste factor still runs strong to hand out a fair chance to the jailed Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) whose caste (Yadavs) accounts for 14 per cent of the state’s electorate. The Congress is a relatively small player.
Lack of job creation and absence of industries in Nitish’s 13-year sway is, however, a sore point for the electorate — and this could work against the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Unlike 2014 when there was a ‘Modi wave’ in Bihar, this time around there is no wave but a less pronounced sentiment for the BJP and the NDA. At the same time, the undercurrent for ‘son of the soil’ Lalu is strong not only among the Yadavs but even in other segments though Lalu’s son Tejashwi Yadav has manifest lack of resources to bank upon.
With Lalu having been denied bail to campaign for his party, his demagoguery is no longer there to sway masses. Tejashwi is well-schooled in politics but no match for his father in wit and substance. His estrangement with his elder brother, Tej Pratap Yadav, has somewhat dampened Tejashwi’s campaign.
Nowhere is the battle between the NDA and the rival combine of the RJD and the Congress is as pronounced as in Patna Sahib. Here two-time MP (on a BJP ticket) actor-turned-politician Shatrughan Sinha is crossing swords with his erstwhile party this time on a Congress ticket. Sinha is pitted against Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is a formidable opponent.
Sinha is fighting with his back to the wall and considering that he is bad-mouthing Modi who he once revered like a demi-god, he evokes derision and scowls from a section of the electorate. Sinha has indeed been making common cause with Modi’s detractors, which is being looked upon as betrayal by many.
Despite his two terms as Member of Parliament, Sinha is virtually a novice in politics with his participation in Lok Sabha debates too infrequent and too pedestrian. By contrast, Prasad is a political veteran who has given a good account of himself as a central minister.
Nonetheless, this is a prestige fight and Prasad can hardly afford to take his victory for granted given the stakes involved. Patna Sahib is a constituency of over 21 lakh voters and Sinha’s margin in 2014 was a significant 2.65 lakh. How much of the impressive margin was the result of Sinha’s candidature will be revealed when the results come on May 23.
Another prestigious battle will be between BJP’s Ram Kripal Yadav and RJD’s Misa Bharti, Lalu’s daughter. Misa had lost the Pataliputra Lok Sabha seat by about 40,000 votes in 2014 and while she no longer has Lalu’s demagoguery to support her, she is confronted by Modi’s waning charisma. In addition, sympathy for Lalu could help Misa this time around.
In another key contest, Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) who was earlier with the NDA but crossed sides to the RJD-Congress camp is seeking to test his strength against the NDA in Karakat. The Kushwahas have a six per cent share of the total vote and the BJP may well regret having jettisoned Upendra Kushwaha from the NDA to accommodate other allies such as Nitish and Lok Janashakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan.
There is also Congress stalwart late Jagjivan Ram’s daughter Meira Kumar pitted against BJP’s Chhedi Paswan in Sasaram, where the contest is expected to be keen with an edge for the BJP.
As for the Muslims who account for a sizeable 17 per cent of the electorate, the BJP is normally anathema but the joining of Nitish in the alliance has weaned away a section of them towards the NDA.
A section of Muslims believe that Nitish is an insurance for them against any excesses by the BJP and that could prove the NDA’s saving grace.
All in all, the contest in Bihar could be keen but the NDA seems to have an edge, especially with Modi with all guns blazing taking on the opponents in the final stage.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a senior journalist. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.