Prime Minister Narendra Modi effectively took the poll battle to the opposition camp on Tuesday as he unveiled Rs 1.25 lakh crore special development package for Bihar, creating a development agenda bigger than what chief minister Nitish Kumar could have ever hoped for.
The move attempted to change the context of the political discourse in Bihar, which had sunk to nitpicking and personal attacks, and made the election battle a direct contest between Modi-the personality and Nitish. It also justified the NDA’s decision not to project a chief ministerial candidate.
By preparing the ground for a US-poll type referendum and focusing on the development debate, the BJP has created an immense advantage ahead of the October-November joust for 243 assembly seats.
The election will be critical to Indian politics. An NDA win would restore momentum nationally for the Modi-led Centre and give it a boost ahead of polls in West Bengal, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. A defeat in Bihar would galvanise the Opposition to close ranks in all states.
The projects named in package revealed a meticulously-crafted attempt to aggressively woo the entire state, covering each of the 38 districts and 40 parliamentary constituencies. It was also designed to attack the root of Nitish Kumar’s development vision built over a decade with key projects, which the Modi largesse attempts to negate and improve.
In the focus of Modi’s development fund barrage were key sectors defined by the Nitish regime for special emphasis such as agriculture, education, skill development, power, rural roads, airports and health.
For example, a Rs 3,094 package for the farm sector undercut Nitish’s idea of a ‘Rainbow Revolution’ and Bihar’s agriculture roadmap of Rs 1.52 lakh crore, which was announced in 2013 but without adequate funds. Kumar’s belief that Bihar could not afford big ticket industrial investment and should strengthen the agriculture sector to put Bihari food ‘on every Indian’s plate’ was also trumped in the process.
In another counter, the PM announced a central university near Bhagalpur to be christened Vikramshila University after a heritage site as unique as Nalanda, in which the Nitish regime has invested heavily. Power schemes worth Rs 16,130 crore to provide electricity to rural areas also went for the CM’s jugular over his claims of having extended and improved power network in the state.
Modi’s careful political packaging was seen in the allocation of Rs 2700 crore for a new airport to replace the Patna Airport with a dangerously short runway of not more than 6000 metres. Nitish wanted the new airport closer to his Nalanda constituency.
The timing has been shrewd, pointing to the possibility of an imminent announcement of poll dates. In each of his three visits, Modi has scored big on the political debate, set the agenda and left the Opposition to rail and rant while creating a huge momentum for his own party.
The NDA is conscious that the caste grouping of the grand alliance led by RJD’s Lalu Prasad, Nitish’s JD(U), the Congress and NCP outstrip its voteshare by over 9% difference, if the Lok Sabha polls are considered.
But it is also aware the only way the party can reclaim the momentum lost after the BJP’s defeat in Delhi is through Modi, who seems to have recaptured the verve to sway the electorate.
The strategy has been to hit at raw wounds- Nitish’s unreliability (breaking up with the NDA, the slighting of Dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi), the fear of Lalu Prasad’s return and consequent poor law and order situation, the emphasis on youth and employment while building on foreign policy successes, such as the UAE which is alive in the minds of the people.
The party’s poll strategy of co-opting Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP, Upendra Kushwahas RLSP, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s HAM-S and Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav in a loose grouping has been a success and adds to the formidable upper caste (11%) and OBC-EBC’s grouping which resulted in its success last year.
The NDA has now decided to target the undercurrent of sympathy for Nitish for the development he ushered. If the development debate is neutralised, the NDA would be assured of a win.