The electoral “grand slam” that’s Bihar is a five-set thriller with its share of unforced errors, scintillating volleys and aces. What make real the tennis analogy are disputed line calls amid on-court tantrums, trash-talk and bullying reflective of the contestants’ desperation to win.
No matter who’s ahead in the first three rounds, the battle will last the full five-sets till the game, set and match is called on November 8. The no-holds-barred nature of the face-off can be gauged from the level of discourse that has fallen below abysmal depths in what initially seemed an election well-argued.
On display now is painter and tennis player Caravaggio’s medieval insanity without the matching genius of Nastase or McEnroe. The name-calling, the spread of rumours and the in-the-face mocking that began in the run-up to the third phase of polling has since escalated. Bihar now is the arena of an ugly mud-fight sans the artistry of tennis.
A non-Bihari official assigned to monitor the polls compared the fight with the battle of Stalingrad. “The tide will turn here,” he said without meaning to “second” the Saffron call for “parivartan” (change) in the local context.
The official had his prognosis of the direction in which the wind blew in the 131 constituencies where the vote has been cast. To put the details in print would be imprudent. Suffice to say that his projections didn’t tally with Amit Shah’s reported claim of the BJP having already pocketed a hundred seats.
From all available indications, the polarisation thus far has been on caste lines and along the persona of Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. Modi sought to turn the social lineup to his advantage by charging the Nitish-led grand alliance of seeking to prune the SC-ST quota to accommodate a community — a euphemism for Bihar’s Muslims who are solidly behind the JD(U), RJD and the Congress.
The tactical knife the PM used to claim the proposed slicing of the Dalit-tribal quota was double-edged. Besides a possible Balkanization of Nitish’s once-robust EBC-Mahadalit base, it could inject an adversarial religious nuance to the poll discourse. Whether it works or not will be known in the remaining two phases covering 112 seats.
That the BJP game plan extended beyond the polemical was writ large in Shah’s poll speeches on Thursday in East and West Champaran. In a replay of the 2002 Gujarat elections, he took a leaf out of Modi’s book to show Bihar as a terrorist hub under the grand alliance: “It can’t be ignored anymore. If the BJP by any chance loses, there’ll be (celebratory) fireworks in Pakistan...”
It’s for the match referee —the election commission —to rule on Shah’s statement against the model code. For the present, his manoeuvres need testing in pragmatic terms, leaving aside the moral and the ethical that has little use in the rough and tumble of electoral politics. For, it was Lalu Prasad Yadav who first invoked caste to brand the elections as a “forward versus backward” fight.
A BJP insider said Shah’s statement was aimed at countering the unobtrusive Muslim polarisation in the previous three rounds. To avoid any religious blowback, the Nitish-Lalu camp had sent word to community leaders to ensure that voters turned out without burqas (veils) and skull caps in a staggered manner through the polling hours.
The alliance also didn’t aggressively pursue in the campaign the Muslim vote whose loyalty was unwavering from the word go. “We aren’t surprised the BJP is attempting to polarise the non-Muslim voter. It shows their frustration,” said a JD(U) poll strategist.
That the margins of victory and defeat could be small was evident from voices on the ground in Muzaffarpur and Sitamarhi districts headed for election on November 1 in the fourth phase. The only decided vote in these areas was that of Muslims, Yadavs and Kurmis with even the Kushwahas and Bhumihars, considered captive BJP constituents, looking divided on account of local factors.
“It’s a tough call,” conceded several BJP cadres on the ground. The iffy nature of the fourth round explained perhaps the BJP’s anxiety to “go for the kill” in the minority-dominated fifth and final phase that includes Seemanchal — and two districts of Mithilanchal (Madhubani-Darbhanga) where the Saffron is relatively better-placed.
The 57 seats at stake in these regions can make or mar the prospects of either side. In a polarised ambience, other issues going against rival contestant can get subsumed in communal passions. The question, therefore, is whether the voter will keep his equanimity? Or get carried away by communal passions?