As I got out of the Patna airport on Monday morning, Ijaj Khan was waiting with his Scorpio. We had travelled together in Patna a few months ago, doing rounds of the homes of politicians. Khan smiled and said, “Sir, game is over. Mahagathbandhan is winning. I have just come back from Nalanda and there is a Nitish havewa.”
I said, provocatively, that was obvious since Nalanda is a Kurmi stronghold, Nitish Kumar’s caste group said to be loyal to him. Khan said he had also gone to Bhagalpur and Munger, which was in the first round of the five-phase election. “Jeet rahein hain Nitish.”
The Lalu Prasad challenge
Our first stop was the home of Lalu Prasad, on Circular Road. We hoped to catch him before he set off for the day. Prasad was taking a bath, and we were made to wait outside. Manoj Jha, the articulate party spokesperson and its TV face, came out to give soundbites to TV channels. RJD has realised they have to play the media game, and feed the 24-7 news cycle; the morning feed was critical in shaping the day’s narrative. He threw a barb at Modi for following the ‘Sangh ki Bidhan’, text of the Sangh, instead of the Sambidhan, the constitution, and claimed BJP was back in the pavilion after the first two phases.
Our hopes for meeting Lalu were dashed for the day when Jha said he would leave immediately for the airport. But as the leader drove out in a Fortuner car, Prasad stopped over for the media and said, “If BJP believes in reservation, it should burn Golwalkar’s Bunch of Thoughts.” Lalu had made RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s statement on the need to rethink reservations a central poll plank, claiming the BJP would abolish it if elected to power. Many in Patna view this as a game-changer, and claim this has cemented ‘backward unity’.
In a subsequent conversation, a leader of RJD confirmed that it was a deliberate ploy to make it a forward versus backward to rather than a secular versus communal election. The latter ran the risk of the ‘counter consolidation’ of Hindus. And so, Muslims were low-key. “They are voting aggressively for us, but silently. If they are aggressive, it suits the BJP. Our emphasis is on breaking any attempt to make the Hindu vote homogeneous and exposing caste based inequalities.”
Amit Shah hits back
Patna is currently paradise for a political animal, for one political event quickly follows another. We immediately moved to BJP party office near the IT crossing in central Patna. The BJP’s national president and one of the most powerful leaders in the country, Amit Shah, was to address the press. The Patna press corps was in full attendance.
Shah began by saying the NDA had reviewed the first two phases of elections--and expected to win 32-34 seats in the first and 22-24 seats in the second phase. This was clearly an effort to counter the Mahagathbandhan which had made similar claims. He played up the party’s commitment to develop eastern India, and the ploy of Bihar’s leaders who claimed to speak for the backwards of keeping them backward.2
In a sign that Lalu’s reservation attack was seen as potent, Shah reiterated that BJP was fully committed to the existing reservations regime, there would be no changes, and the constitutional rights of backwards and Dalits would be protected. Shah insisted this was not a forward versus backward election, because 2015 was not 1990. Yet, he could not avoid the binary and had to counter the narrative of BJP being an upper caste outfit - and said it had given the country the maximum number of backward CMs and a backward PM, from a poor family.
But the real banter began in the Q and A session, and in an off the record session. Patna journalists challenged Shah more than Delhi journalists often do, with questions ranging from how BJP top rung had given space to convicts to its relationship with RSS, and the party being in denial about a possible loss. They teased him for taking only ‘bahari’ journalists on his chopper and ignoring the Bihari reporters. Shah teased some of them for being close to Nitish, and urged them not to get too excited.
And the Nitish Kumar card
A 45-minute drive from central Patna is Punpun ghat, in the Phulwari Sharif assembly constituency. In the high school ground, across a railway track, a rather small crowd of about 1,500 people waited for Nitish Kumar. A helicopter soon hovered around, causing dust and a ripple of excitement, as the CM landed and walked to the stage.
It followed the established pattern on rallies. The dais was large to accommodate local notables, who looked rather important sharing the stage with a top leader. Local leaders spoke, as crowds waited for the chief guest to arrive, often bored and chatting amongst themselves. Once Nitish arrived, the local candidate, Minister Shyam Rajak, made a pitch for himself, inviting the CM to speak.
Nitish combined his restrained and understated conversational style with humour and an attention to policy detail in the speech. He spoke of how the Mahagathbandhan had been more coherent than NDA--they had a CM candidate, their candidates were announced together and a common vision unveiled. He attacked the PM for a ‘hit and run’ approach, for not delivering on promises like 15 lakh cash in each account, and mocked the BJP for sending half the cabinet and parking its national president at Patna’s Maurya Hotel. He spoke of his work in education, gender, power and made a list of commitments for the future: including reservations for women in government jobs, a credit card for students wanting to pursue college education and a self-help allowance for young people.
Strikingly, he did not mention caste even once. Instead the CM made it a battle between Biharis and ‘baharis’, a slogan that drew the most applause.