Predicting elections is hazardous business, and can be detrimental to a journalist's health. In the highly competitive world of Indian elections, the hawa (wind) we base our analysis on can suddenly change direction, leaving us floundering in its tail end. But with all the statutory warnings, let me bite the bullet and make a prediction based on a 48-hour whistle stop tour of Bihar: Nitish Kumar is poised to return to power with a massive majority. There is no gentle breeze blowing through Bihar in 2010, it's almost a gale storm, one that threatens to rewrite the political sociology of the state.
Travelling with Nitish is a revelation. There is virtually no mention of caste in his speeches, although he has carefully fashioned an alliance on the ground of extremely backward castes, Mahadalits and backward Muslims. The focus is instead on a vocabulary unheard of in the state in over two decades: roads, primary health centres, girls' education, thermal power plants. The crowds listen to him in rapt attention, despite Nitish's limitations as a public speaker. The only rhetorical flourish he permits himself is when he promises to confiscate the property of corrupt officials and set up schools instead.
In alphabetical terms, Nitish has created a new 'SSS' of politics: sadak, shiksha, suraksha. The gleaming highways and pucca village roads are Bihar's new pride. The bicycles for girls studying in ninth standard have become a symbol of women's empowerment. But the biggest achievement of the last five years is undoubtedly law and order. In a state which has been lampooned in Bollywood and beyond as a land of thieves and kidnappers, Nitish Kumar has positioned himself as 'The Terminator'. The gangs have either been locked up or have disappeared. No longer do police officers have to ring up the CM's residence before arresting a gangster.
Little surprise then that Nitish's most enthusiastic supporters seem to be women and youth. For women, who have also been provided 50% reservation in panchayats, the ability to just move out after dusk, be it in Patna or Purnea, is liberating. For the youth, who have been desperate to look for a future outside the state, the improved security situation means that a night out at the cinema is no longer a distant fantasy. In an atmosphere of renewed hope, no one exemplifies the dark past more than Lalu Prasad, the man who once promised to make Bihar's roads as "smooth as Hema Malini's cheeks" but left them as lunar craters. Lalu's charisma is intact, he still offers the best one-liners (including a promise of Rs 2 aloo from Lalu), but somehow he is now a caricature of the rustic king he once was. You still smile at his jokes, but it's more out of a nostalgic remembrance of an old comedy film.
In the 1990s, Bihar perhaps needed a Lalu-like figure, someone who had the courage and the chutzpah to take on the state's upper caste establishment on his own terms. When he arrested LK Advani in 1990, he became an instant icon for fearful Muslims. Today, when he warns the Muslim voter of the 'saffron forces' returning to power, the threat doesn't seem to strike a chord: like the rest of Bihar, its large Muslim population also wants to be part of the growth story. The fact that there hasn't been a single communal incident in Bihar in the last five years makes it even more difficult for Lalu to revive his traditional Muslim-Yadav combine.
Indeed, the taming of the BJP's hotheads has been another Nitish achievement. This isn't the BJP of the Ram Mandir, but a political party which has, like Nitish and Lalu, grown through the womb of the JP movement and fierce anti-Congressism. By ensuring that his alliance partner stays away from the slightest identification with Hindutva politics - recall his refusal to share even poster space with Narendra Modi - Nitish Kumar has almost succeeded in doing what even a Vajpayee could not achieve at the national level: converting the Bihar BJP into a moderate political force which even Muslims seem ready to vote for.
It's not just Lalu, even Rahul Gandhi's Congress is being swept aside by the Nitish wave. If UP last year hinted at a revival of Congress fortunes in the Hindi heartland, Bihar 2010 might confirm the limitations of parachute politics. A handful of Rahul rallies can be no substitute for the near-absence of a political organisation on the ground. That the Congress has chosen to field Lalu's discredited relatives and the wives of mafia dons is proof of the bankruptcy of the party's Bihar unit.
And yet, as Nitish appears set for victory, his real challenge could well begin now in managing rising expectations. Education has received a boost, but jobs remain scarce. Security has been provided, but investments haven't come in. Crime has been controlled, but petty corruption appears to have grown. Roads have been built, but power remains a crisis. Patna's spanking new revolving restaurant is an aspirational symbol, but leapfrogging out of poverty is still tough for the majority. Nitish himself may have acquired a larger-than-life image, but the Janata Dal United he leads has shrunk, forcing him to rely on a core team of bureaucrats to implement his policies. Nitish Raj is here, but the crown of Pataliputra will never rest easily.
Post-script: Nitish may have refused to allow Narendra Modi to campaign in Bihar, but ironically, the two leaders have remarkably similar personalities. Shunning family ties, their austere private lives co-exist with a strong authoritarian streak. Both have focused on making personal integrity and development-plus politics their calling card. While Modi is already a Hindutva posterboy, Nitish is on his way to being seen as a new-age Mandal revolutionary. Their individual battles could well shape the future of anti-Congress politics.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, IBN 18 Network. The views expressed by the author are personal.