Madhubani/Darbhanga: Two days before Bihar kicks off its month-long elections, it is clear that chief minister Nitish Kumar is yet to derive sufficient traction from his development record to overcome traditional vote divisions on caste and communal lines.
The split opposition has seized on the indecision among voters and raised the communal bogey to target Kumar—focusing on the alliance between his Janata Dal (United), or JD(U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi and general secretary Rahul Gandhi, has been particularly severe on Kumar on this count. The party that heads the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Union government has given election tickets to 47 Muslims to drive its point home.
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At stake is the crucial MY (Muslim-Yadav) combination of votes. Yadavs, who are the main component of the electorally powerful other backward classes (OBCs) in Bihar, and Muslims together constitute at least 25% of the state’s 82 million population. Muslims alone form 16.5% and can prove to be decisive in 60 of Bihar’s 243 constituencies.
The loss of this crucial combination led to the ejection of the 15-year-old regime of Lalu Prasad and his wife Rabri Devi in 2005, when the last elections took place.
This time, Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has aligned with the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) headed by Ram Vilas Paswan and is hoping to win back the combination.
The Congress, which rejected alliances, is contesting all seats. The BJP is contesting 102 seats to the JD(U)’s 141. The RJD has put up 168 candidates, while the LJP is contesting 75 seats.
The overall mood may yet change because many voters still seem to be sitting on the fence.
Beginning on 21 October, the assembly elections will be spread out over six phases and conclude on 20 November.
The first phase of polling is in Mithilanchal in north-east Bihar, bordering the Ganges, a region known for its unique combination of upper-caste Brahmins, Muslims and OBCs.
“Bihar cannot progress only with construction of roads. The chief minister had said he would not come back seeking votes unless the smoke starts coming out from the chimneys of the factories here. Forget about any new units being opened, even those that existed are shut down,” said Mohammed Shanawas Hussain, who runs a medicine store in Madhubani.
“Things are just evolving. The picture will be clearer within a few days,” said Bipin Pande, a paan vendor in Kurhani.
There are indications though that Kumar’s development plank has resonated with the youth in the region.
While 47 constituencies will vote on Thursday, polling in 45 others will take place on 24 October. In the third phase on 28 October, 48 constituencies will vote, followed by 42 on 1 November, 35 on 9 November and 26 on 20 November.
The JD(U) is, of course, confident of its strategy. “Nitish Kumar is seeking votes on the basis of the work he has done. We’re not really banking on any particular community like others in the fray. He draws support from all across the society,” said Ali Anwar Ansari, a JD(U) member of the Rajya Sabha.
But Patna-based political analyst Saibal Gupta said the elections are going to be tough for the chief minister. “It’s not at all a cakewalk, but a real tough fight. We cannot deny the dominance of caste in the electoral scene. This election will prove if Bihar has overcome caste-ridden politics and vote for development.”
If the mood in Mithilanchal is an indicator, the RJD-LJP combine appears to be in with a chance. “As long as BJP is with Nitish, the Muslims in Bihar will never vote for him,” said Masood, a resident of Madhubani, although a considerable number of Muslims had supported Kumar in the last assembly polls.
There is a general impression that the Prasad-Paswan alliance would be preferred by Muslims and Yadavs. But B.K. Hariprasad, who is the chairman of the Congress screening committee for Bihar elections, said while the Yadavs could vote for the RJD, the Muslim vote will be divided between the RJD and the Congress.
The Congress, which managed just 6% of the votes in the last assembly elections, also hopes to double its vote share following Rahul Gandhi’s campaign among the youth.
Gandhi’s visit to Mumbai and his train journey in February, at a time when Shiv Sena activists were unleashing a violent campaign against migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, also appears to have won him goodwill among Bihar’s voters.
“He (Rahul Gandhi) stood by us and looks to be sincere too,” said Nandkishore Yadav of Bhawara Gangasagar village. “But Congress can’t do anything alone. He should have aligned with Nitish Kumar.”
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan