Nitish Kumar’s is a high-stakes, big losses or high-returns gamble in Bihar. He’d face oblivion if he loses. A victory would help him keep not just the CM’s office but emerge a challenger to Narendra Modi in the immediate or distant future.
The pan-Indian dimensions of their provincial face-off are hard to ignore. Modi entered the contest as a leader with no national alternative. A defeat there could rob him of that air of invincibility.
He’d continue to be PM. But the political consequences of an adverse outcome could be deleterious for his government—delay as it would the numbers it direly needs in the Rajya Sabha. A kind of throwback on the UPA-2; the spectre of an alliance in power standing on one-leg against an Opposition united to scuttle or block legislation in Parliament to show it as weak. Or inept.
Conversely, if Modi wrests Bihar, he’d be the monarch of all that he surveys. The GST, the land law and all other legislations stuck in the quagmire of adversarial politics will be in place. Opposition to him would evaporate within and outside the NDA. For, in India, leaders who win polls for their parties aren’t questioned. They’re obeyed.
Conjectures apart, Nitish’s hyphenation with Modi isn’t new. It started when he walked out of his 17-year-old alliance with the BJP in protest against the Gujarat strongman’s projection as its poll mascot. The saffron party cried foul, attributing the 2013 breakup to Nitish’s prime ministerial ambition shrouded in the veneer of ideology.
The saffron party didn’t tire thereafter of calling the JD (U)-BJP split a betrayal of the 2010 mandate against Lalu Yadav’s RJD and the Congress whose support Nitish took to remain CM. In this backdrop, a mandate against his former ally led by Modi, his declared bête noire, would embellish the Bihar CM’s curriculum vitae.
The contest would have been easier for the BJP had it managed to project Lalu, with his Jungle Raj downside, as the lynchpin of the rival alliance. When that didn’t work, Modi and his infantrymen got down to deconstructing Nitish. The attack on him was multi-pronged, ranging from pointed assaults on his ‘tainted’ poll partners to ‘un-kept’ election promises. “Bijli aaye,” Modi would mock at poll rallies, recalling Nitish’s resolve of not returning to seek votes if he failed to reach electricity to the electorate.
But the charges came unstuck. Or so it seemed from the near-total absence of anti-incumbency against the CM. Bijli wasn’t an issue, nor was road communication or even law and order.
On the tangibles that couldn’t be obfuscated, Nitish got plaudits from even his adversaries. Independent observers were at a loss, in fact, knowing not as to who advised the PM to rake up the power supply situation that has vastly improved in towns and is even better in the countryside. “The mahagathbandhan is about Nitish’s face and Lalu’s base,” remarked a JD (U) supporter in Darbhanga. “Here the trust quotient for the CM negates the fears of reversion to Lalu’s jungle Raj.”
In the absence of a local face to match Nitish’s appeal, it made sense from the BJP’s perspective to juxtapose the PM’s promise of patronage-- resting on his special package for Bihar-- against the CM’s record of governance. As the poll crescendo grew, so did the comparison between the two, fuelling parochial sentiments that weren’t a Bihari staple.
Sub-nationalism can be an effective glue against communalism in a caste-riven society. The level of discourse fell as rival contestants aroused and addressed this mind dimension to the no-holds-barred battle for Bihar.
The grand alliance stoked ‘Bihari pride’ to counter the BJP’s initially subtle, eventually brazen communal pitch. If the PM’s DNA jibe against Nitish was fodder for parochialism, Lalu’s comment on beef a godsend for religious polarisation.
The resultant verbal slugfest between Nitish’s “Pradhan Mantriji” and Modi’s “Nitish Babu” put them on the same plain-- as alternatives. The alliance showcased it as a choice between a son of the soil (Bihari) and an outsider (Bahari). “Am I from Pakistan or Bangladesh. How can a PM be bahari,” countered Modi.
The Bihar electorate have ruled already. We’d get to know their verdict on November 8.