The Silk city Bhagalpur, the political hub of eastern Bihar, was the target of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday, as he attempted to improve the NDA's electoral prospects in a region where it faces its toughest challenge.
Bhagalpur, together with adjoining Seemanchal and Kosi, has been the power house of the 'secular' alliance led by the RJD, Congress and the JD-U, spanning 66 assembly seats - 19 in Bhagalpur division,23 in Purnia division and 24 in Kosi — and is mostly dominated or heavily influenced by the Muslim-EBC vote.
The BJP had done well here in 2005 and 2010 with Nitish Kumar led-JD(U) as an ally. But the falling out with Kumar has hit the BJP hard and in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the party lost five sitting parliamentary seats, namely Banka, Bhagalpur, Purnia, Katihar and Araria, despite a Modi-wave that swept the nation. It then lost the Bhagalpur assembly seat to the Congress in a by-election a month later.
"The biggest challenge for the NDA, specifically BJP, is to improve its tally in Bhagalpur and Purnia-Kosi divisions where it continues to be on a weak wicket due to poor caste arithmetic. A wipe-out here would cost it the Bihar throne, that's why the emphasis on Saharsa and Bhagalpur rallies", said Randhir Gupta, a local school teacher.
The BJP had reaped political dividends in Bhagalpur town and surrounding constituencies in the post 1989 Bhagalpur riot period, with Ashwini Choubey, now Buxar MP, winning the assembly seat five times. But the twin setbacks suffered in the 2014 parliamentary polls and the subsequent by-election were proof that "secular rivals" aided by a polarisation of Muslim votes had the numbers to overwhelm the BJP.
The repeat of a similar outcome is a distinct possibility with the Congress, RJD and the JD(U) joining forces and leaving the Muslim electorate with 'no other choice" but to vote for their Grand Alliance.
For one, many Muslims view Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a pro-Hindutva icon. The aggressive posturing of BJP's saffron affiliates like VHP have also deepened the fear factor among the minority community.
Internal squabbles between BJP stalwart Shahnawaz Hussein and sitting Buxar MP Ashwini Choubey have complicated matters for the BJP further, disillusioning and dividing party cadres.
Last but not the least, the absence of a wider BJP base among dominant EBC groups like Gangotas, Mahtos, Yadavs and Muslims, is its Achilles heel and the Grand Alliance's strength.
"That upsets the BJP's poll arithmetic. Add to that the void of the JD(U) votes and it becomes a big handicap," said Anup Lal Mahto, a local lawyer.
The observation holds, for in 2014 LS polls, BJP had managed to take leads only in seven assembly segments out of 66 in Kosi, Purnia and Bhagalpur divisions sans JD-U support, the reason why it is playing up LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan and HAM (secular) chief Jitan Ram Manjhi to make inroads into the overwhelming Dalit-EBC voter profile, besides its own OBC leaders.
Besides Modi's charisma, BJP leaders say the upcoming assembly poll is an acid test for Hussein's ownorganizational skills in bringing his community around.