There’s hardly any poll buzz in the air. The Patna airspace, except the pre-winter nip, is dominated only by choppers of politicians of all possible colours and combinations.
Destination: far-flung constituency where a well-fed urbane politician can reach only by air, despite Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s five-year-long struggle to build roads and bridges.
Clearly, the polls this time are not similar to the ones traditionally known in Bihar. There is hardly any activity to suggest that people are considering whom to vote.
Compare this with the frenzied run-up in February 2005. The heat rose with a hung assembly with Rabri Devi’s ascension only to be dispossessed within a month, and President’s rule under governor Buta Singh. Next came the November polls, which kept the uncertainty alive for almost a year.
“Maybe their (the voters’) decision is already made or they are completely confused,” said Dr Sumanta Niyogi, a leading Patna-based political observer and historian.
The JD-U-led National Democratic Alliance government under Kumar talks of the initiatives it took to develop the state during the last five years.
The RJD-LJP combine, led by Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, is seeking to demolish the development plank, while the Congress’ attempt is to stage a climb-back under Rahul Gandhi. It’s selling proposition: a young and incorruptible future leadership.
Now, what is bothering one and all is dissidence on an unheard of scale this time. Combined with the impact of delimitation - that has changed many a traditional equation - this may impact the results in as many as 40 per cent seats.
The poll picture so far looks somewhat like this - consolidation of the other backward classes (OBCs), a settled Muslim constituency, the rise of the extremely backward castes (EBCs) and the march of women following reservations in panchayats. Add to this the reservation for Dalits in local bodies and the NDA and RJD-LJP backing the poor among the upper castes.
Since 2005, the traditional equations have been changing, with Kumar leading the Kurmi-Koeri groups and riding piggyback on the BJP to make enter the upper-caste vote bank. Kumar is trying to court the numerically superior EBCs and Muslims and circumventing the caste factor by recognising women as a separate political constituency.
But Kumar’s emphasis on the EBCs has challenged the order of caste entities. While this has upset the applecart of the Prasad-Paswan combo, Kumar’s development initiatives and success on the law and order front impressed the upper and trading castes.
With the BJP having been forced to play down its Hindutva agenda and dissidents and rebels challenging the party’s official candidates, Kumar has emerged as the big brother of the NDA in Bihar.
But the opposition smells an opportunity in Kumar’s move to bring in the pataidari (share-cropping) Bill. When Kumar drafted D. Bandyopadhyay, a retired bureaucrat who had built the barga model in West Bengal, he could hardly imagine that he was opening Pandora’s box.
Though Kumar clarified that he had no plans to go ahead with Bandyopadhya’s recommendations, the land-owning castes — mainly the Bhumihars and Kurmis of central Bihar, the Rajputs and Muslims of Seemanchal, and Yadavs of the Kosi region — smelt a rat.
Even former JD-U state chief Rajiv Ranjan Singh Lalan and MP Prabhunath Singh rebelled and put up the Kisan Mahapanchayat, which fizzled out. But the sentiment could work in favour of the Congress.
It is true that the urban mindset is poised against Prasad. But just 15 per cent of the population resides in towns.
Prasad may reap profit from confusion among Muslims after the Ayodhya verdict. But his concern will be the fact that not all his kinsmen are with him. Even in his traditional base, Madhepura, it will take some special effort for Prasad to retrieve the ground from the NDA.
But Prasad’s chief aide, Ramkripal Yadav, said “Ram Vilas Paswan split in November, which is why Prasad lost, but a recombination and the emphasis on winnable candidates on all seats this time give the advantage to Prasad.”
The Paswans, elites among the Dalits, have never seen eye to eye with the Yadavs. The LJP chief lost the parliamentary elections on his own turf after the Yadavs and the forward castes deserted him. This time, Paswan is closing ranks with Prasad.
The NDA strongholds
The NDA may like to build on its November 2005 showing in the Champaran, Bhagalpur-Tirhut areas and the Magadh region, while it has a strong presence in Kaimur, Rohtas and Bhojpur districts.
Now, it seems the decisive war will be fought in the Saran-Gopalganj-Siwan belt, where Prasad’s base votes are much higher than the JDU-BJP combine.
Since the Muslims are a decisive factor in 60 constituencies and can make or mar the results of another 40 constituencies, they are being the most wooed. But there has been some polarisation in Muslim-dominated districts in Seemanchal and elsewhere.
The arithmetic in Bihar has never been more complex. The mood has never been more secretive and the winning line has never been more blurred.