"This is a life and death election," Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar roared at a rally in Patna last week. A mistake, he claimed, could lead to the train being derailed. "If we are not strong in Delhi, there will be conspiracies to undermine the Bihar government. If you give us power, then Delhi will be forced to give us special status."
When faced with a possibly adverse electoral verdict, politicians usually underplay the importance of the polls. Two days before results for five state assemblies were declared, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, said the party is going into the Lok Sabha polls with a sense of confidence "whatever be the results of the current round of assembly elections".
But Kumar has adopted a diametrically opposite strategy, establishing the centrality of the Lok Sabha elections even though he faces a tough challenge.
Kumar is aware that a perception has gained ground in Bihar that he has limited stakes in the Lok Sabha polls. As Madhubani shop-owner Arun Kumar Bhandari, who belongs to Kumar's core base of Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs), told HT, "Nitish Kumar is a good CM, but he won't become PM. So why waste a vote on him?"
To wean away such voters who prefer his government in Bihar but see no reason to vote for the JD(U) at the centre, and establish the linkage between local and national, Kumar has decided to push this new campaign message. "If we do badly in the Lok Sabha, the state government will collapse. People don't want that, and we want to play into that fear. There is a lot of goodwill for Nitish's work," said a top JD(U) leader.
The JD(U) doesn't have to work hard to project its vulnerability. After the break with the BJP last June, the government is walking on thin ice. In the legislative assembly of 243 seats, the JD(U) has 115. It won the support of 124 MLAs in the last vote of confidence, with the Congress' four MLAs, four Independents, and one CPI MLA backing Kumar's government.
But an adverse Lok Sabha poll verdict in 2014 could result in a change in equations. There could well be an exodus of MLAs from Kumar's party and Independents may have less incentive in supporting the JD(U). If the RJD and Congress do stitch an alliance, and perform well, Lalu Prasad will pressure his ally to withdraw support to Kumar's government.
And if the BJP does well, and manages to form the government at the centre, it will have additional levers of power to push for early assembly polls in Bihar.
Irrespective of whether the state government falls, Kumar playing up that prospect is a high-risk venture. It may consolidate his supporters, but it may well galvanise his opponents as well.
Battling a strong anti-incumbency sentiment, with voters comparing his current term unfavourably to his first term, Kumar is in a spot.
But the man has a history of come-backs. Linking the national with the local — while maintaining his core caste coalition of EBCs and Mahadalits, with an increased support of Muslims and garnering a slice of upper castes — is his political gamble for now.