Nitish Kumar, the successful chief minister of Bihar, is in a strange situation: He is watching a Narendra Modi-powered BJP, and old rival Lalu Prasad, battling - to eat his lunch.
On the ground there is a solid polarisation of Muslim votes behind Lalu, an irrepressible former chief minister out on bail in a corruption case and now the senior partner in an alliance with Congress.
As if to underline this, Akhtarul Imam, a candidate for Muslim-dominated Kishanganj that Nitish had poached from Lalu, on Tuesday announced that he had quit the race to support the sitting Congress candidate.
It has come to a point that some in Lalu's party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, are now beginning to fear that a Muslim wave in favour of the party will alienate large parts of the much bigger Hindu constituency. This, the theory goes, could limit Lalu to the Muslim-Yadav dominated constituencies and cost him crucial seats he may otherwise have won.
A dozen Muslim groups have come together to educate the community on how to stop a vote division in Bihar in order to keep the BJP out.
Anwarul Hoda, a leader of one of the groups, accepts that the community is alarmed by the rise of forces that could alter the democratic and secular structure of India. The appeal is not to vote for Muslim candidates alone, but for anyone who has a chance to defeat the 'communal forces'. The JD-U, hit by dissent, desertions and ministers' resignations, is increasingly being left out of this arithmetic.
To make matters worse, the JD (U)'s campaign is hamstrung by a certain "sameness", which voters are likely to compare unfavourably with the carefully articulated Narendra Modi pitch. While Nitish has drawn attention to Bihar issues, Modi's campaign talks of local icons and history but also brings in a national flavour. There's a refreshing vigour that is drawing huge crowds.
Ominously for Nitish, Modi's latest attacks have ignored him, preferring to focus instead on the Lalu-Sonia axis, which the BJP strongman calls "unholy".
In Bhagalpur and Araria on Tuesday, Modi's counterpoint to Lalu's growing clout was: "How can Bihar pitch for a man who resigned it to the dark ages and stole money from the treasury?" He never mentioned a single Muslim issue at either place, known for riots and significant Muslim numbers.
Modi's focus is now increasingly on Yadav votes. In areas like Nawada and Buxar, Modi's appeal to the community, the bedrock of Lalu's constituency, was to remind them of Dwarka, the ultimate seat of Lord Krishna, the protector of cows. He hit out at the "pink industry", or meat, "the export of which the UPA supports".
In Sigori,a Muslim village with 8,000 votes just 50 kms south of Patna, despite tremendous development work by Nitish, Md Shamim Ansari, a former mukhia, said the Muslims would vote RJD as the JD-U looked too weak to stop Modi.
RJD insiders feel that if its alliance with Congress wins 15 seats, Lalu can claim to have stopped the Modi rath in Bihar, just as he stopped the Advani rath many years ago.
Nitish is fighting an uphill battle, except in Nalanda, which looks secure and to some extent Jhanjharpur.
BJP leaders Mangal Pandey said, "This government will fall post-polls", while senior colleague Sushil Kumar Modi warned: "Nitish will be hard put to stop the desertions". Both, however, ruled out a BJP state government with the help of JD-U deserters.
The emerging situation is not lost on Nitish either and his desperation surfaces in each rally, where he warns of communalism and then adds, "If you do choose wrongly, your government will be gone and with that the development of Bihar".
The seeds of his problem lie in his split from the BJP, seen by voters as a slap in the face to a joint mandate they had given the parties to rule Bihar. The 2009 assembly poll configuration had brought together the forwards, with the exception of Rajputs, besides the OBCs and Dalits, to counter the RJD–LJP challenge. The split helped reconfigure the support base with an advantage to the BJP.
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