On Wednesday, Bihar’s disaster management department said 24 out of 38 districts in the state were facing a drought-like situation due to deficient rainfall. Officials in northern Bihar districts said withering crops were forcing farmers and farm labourers to migrate from the state in search of livelihood.
The political parties seemed more worried about the short-term impact – low voter turnout in the five-phase polls beginning October 12 – than the grim forecast.
But the farmers’ plight has struggled to find space in the campaign rhetoric that has changed focus from development to reservation and now, to beef.
When the Bihar assembly election was announced on September 9, the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal-United and opposition BJP jumped on to the development bandwagon.
The chief minister gloated over the development achieved during his 10-year tenure and countered Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s digs with statistics. The BJP too chanted the development mantra, trashing JD-U’s claims of having taken Bihar to a different level.
Then came the first twist. On September 21, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat called for review of the reservation policy. The Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal pounced on this and ally JD-U followed suit.
The two sides were quick in realising that development may be the buzz word, but their real strategy was to polarise votes on different lines to corner maximum number of votes in the direct contest that it is turning out to be in Bihar.
With little to showcase on the development front, Lalu was especially quick to wade into the Bhagwat controversy. Lalu and Nitish both aimed to present themselves as saviours of the backwards who account for nearly half of Bihar’s population.
On the defensive, the BJP tried to hard sell its development agenda, but fears of a backlash from the backwards forced it into a damage control exercise.
But much before the slugfest between the two was over, the lynching of a Muslim man in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri over his rumoured consumption of beef found an echo in Bihar.
Uncharacteristically, Lalu erred, with a comment that Hindus too ate beef. This was the perfect cue for the BJP to deflect attention from the reservation controversy, and return the RJD chief’s fire.
PM Modi’s attack on Lalu at a rally in Patna, where he said that the former CM’s remarks on cow meat were an insult of Yadauvanshis (Yadav community), was also seen as an effort to win over some support from the influential backward community, which accounts for nearly 15 per cent of Bihar’s population and forms the core of Lalu’s support base.
The fallout of Lalu’s comment has embarrassed allies JD-U and Congress. During a rally in Teghra assembly constituency on Wednesday, some of his listeners displayed placards seeking to know why he was backing beef-eating.
“The BJP is politicising the beef issue. They are mistaken if they think Bihar will buy their brand of communalism,” said RJD leader Manoj Jha.
But there are fears that communal forces might use the beef row to spark trouble by the time the five-phase polling ends on October 5.
Reports of such disturbance have already come from eastern Bihar’s Kishanganj district with the police lodging an FIR against All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader Akbaruddin Owaisi for an allegedly inflammatory speech on Sunday that led to arson.
The beef misstep has also led Lalu into the BJP’s trap of making Bihar polls a BJP-verses-RJD fight, which will push Nitish Kumar into the background. Nitish’s Mr Clean image, won over a decade in office, was the BJP’s main challenge and Lalu’s dominating role in the grand alliance gives the BJP a chance to remind people that jungle raj could return if it was defeated.
“The more Lalu speaks, the more it will benefit us. Lalu’s style of politics and vocabulary is alien to the younger generation among the backward and dalit communities. Lalu is still stuck in the 90s while a large chunk of Bihar has already moved ahead,” said Bihar BJP spokesman Devesh Kumar.
(With inputs from Vijay Swaroop and Anirban Guha Roy)