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A divorce, a jail term, determined foes: Bihar CM Nitish Kumar fighting a lone battle?

Hindustan Times  Patna, January 28, 2014
First Published: 22:27 IST(28/1/2014) | Last Updated: 12:23 IST(29/1/2014)

The divorce between Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal(U) and a few days of change in residence for Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad – from 10, Circular Road in Patna to the Ranchi jail in Jharkhand – have totally changed the game that is played in Bihar.

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Prasad is definitely in the comeback mode – with his supporters convinced that he was a victim of injustice and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi expressing interest in the RJD as “an idea”. On Monday, Prasad met Gandhi for the second time this month and rumours are strong that they are inching close to sealing a pact. 

If the RJD strongman manages an alliance with the Congress, he will be able to stop his Yadav and Muslim voters from straying towards the JD (U) and the BJP, respectively. Prasad will soon be out among his people, mobilising them and asking for votes, making the JD (U)’s vigorous campaign among the Yadavs a bad investment.

While there are words going around that RJD will contest more than half the seats in Bihar, the Congress, too, gains from the arrangement. Political observers believe the party stands a poor chance independently in the state.

Meanwhile, the bitter end of the NDA alliance in 2013 has triggered quite a race among the suitors for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Some say it’s a redux of the scene witnessed in 1967, when coalitions dominated Bihar.

As Bihar’s 40 seats have become among the most watched this season, talks – both in the public domain and behind the scenes – are on top of the day’s agendas in the offices of the four major parties – the JD(U), RJD, BJP and the Congress — in Patna.

Unlike the 2009 elections, which were fought between a strong NDA, led by Kumar, and a fractured opposition, the state of play has changed rapidly since June last year with Kumar snapping his 17-year-old ties with the BJP. The reason was Hindutva strongman Narendra Modi’s impending projection as the BJP’s – and, of course, the NDA’s -- prime ministerial candidate.

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Opinion polls suggest the split is going to cost Kumar dear, with one survey suggesting that the JD-U may slip from 20 seats in 2009 to only four this time. Though Kumar has picked holes in the surveys, the people’s mood is perhaps being guided by his decision to keep off the race for the PM’s chair. He is banking more on his image and his inclusive and equitable growth model.

The BJP, on the other hand, is tipped to make big gains.

But it was not so bleak for Nitish till some time back, when he was perceived to be cosying up to the Congress. The signs of Congress-JD-U bonhomie had been pegged mostly on Nitish getting the special category status for Bihar. But of late, Nitish has been accusing the Congress of changing its mind on extending the status to Bihar.

Nitish has already taken the hint and started wooing Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Ram Vilas Paswan, who is miffed with his old ally, the RJD, over seat sharing. Now, Paswan is playing ball with Nitish. He says it is for the Congress to decide whether the secular alliance in Bihar will include the RJD or the JD (U).

If recent pre-poll surveys are any indication, nearly 63% people are satisfied with the performance of the Nitish government, but they will not vote for him in the Lok Sabha polls. Such feedback should enthuse the BJP, which is relying heavily on Modi’s pull.

The saffron party, however, may join hands with a new outfit floated by former JD-U MP Upendra Kushwaha, a leader of the Koeris, who have been Kumar’s supporters so far.  

Bihar has been voting against the national trend since 1989, when the Janata Dal government, led by VP Singh, was formed at the Centre. But the trends now suggest that the state may align with the national mood this time. Is it the end of Bihar’s own brand of politics?

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