2024 Lok Sabha Polls: The battle for Bihar

Modi’s grandstanding aside, the emerging shape and solidity of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc in Bihar promises to give the BJP nightmares

Rahul Gandhi, Tejashwi Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav (right to left) at the Jan Vishwas Rally in Patna (photos: Getty Images)
Rahul Gandhi, Tejashwi Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav (right to left) at the Jan Vishwas Rally in Patna (photos: Getty Images)

Abdul Qadir

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not visit Bihar even once in the past two years, but early this month, he made three trips in five days. This is election season, after all, and it’s time for The Great Leader to makes some new transformational promises to make Bihar/India great again. Investments in the state? Government jobs? Loans for pakora stalls? What will it be— the suspense is nail-biting.

Many more visits are surely on the cards in days to come because the stakes here are big. Bihar accounts for 40 seats in the Lok Sabha, and is the only state in the Hindi heartland the Bharatiya Janata Party has not been able to conquer on its own steam. So, call it coincidence or careful planning, the three rallies so far featuring the BJP’s pradhan sewak were held in Aurangabad, Begusarai and Bettiah (Purvi Champaran), seen as upper-caste bastions represented by BJP members from the powerful Rajput and Bhumihar castes.

More to the point of still needing allies in this state, at the rally in Aurangabad, Modi made the rare gesture—another such instance doesn’t even come to mind—of allowing Nitish Kumar to stand by his side under a huge garland that covered them both. It brought to mind the many occasions when other BJP leaders of note—most recently Rajnath Singh—have been shown their place in no uncertain terms. Nobody steals any corner of the limelight from PM Modi.

If that made Nitish Kumar feel good, the loud laughter of the BJP leaders on the stage when he promised never to leave the PM’s side again, seemed decidedly insulting. It was embarrassing enough for the Opposition to have capitalised on it. By laughing at Kumar, wasn’t the self-esteem of every Bihari hurt? Meanwhile, what could Nitish Kumar do but offer hosannas to the PM—after all, everything that had been achieved in Bihar was due to him.

Nitish Kumar was, as always, being economical with the truth. Everybody agrees that he delivered during his two tenures as chief minister (2005–15), when the UPA government was in power at the Centre (till 2014). Since then, the double-engine governments of the NDA have little to show by way of achievement in the state, giving rival Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Tejashwi Yadav the opportunity to build the ‘17 months versus 17 years’ narrative, which claims that the RJD–JD(U)–INC–Left government in the state did more in 17 months (since 2022) than Nitish Kumar could in 17 years, most of which were in alliance with the BJP.

Tejashwi Yadav has been listing some of ‘his’ achievements: the successful caste survey in the state, increased reservation for backward classes and appointment of school teachers and assistant professors in colleges.

The last was certainly carried out with rare competence. There were no leaks and no complaints of favouritism, manipulation of marks or appointment of undeserving candidates.

It even compelled Nitish Kumar to say that one of the reasons that prompted him to part company with the RJD was because Tejashwi Yadav, then deputy chief minister, was hogging the headlines.

The Lok Sabha election, though, is a different ball game. Both resources and candidates matter along with organisation and booth-level workers. On all these counts, the NDA is miles ahead of the I.N.D.I.A. bloc. What is more, arithmetic and history both favour the NDA.

If the NDA tally in 2014 of 31 Lok Sabha seats was impressive, it was even more spectacular in 2019 when it won all but one of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state.

The Bharatiya Janata Party had won 22 seats in 2014, the Lok Janshakti Party 6 and Lok Samata Party of Upendra Kushwaha won three. JD(U) and RJD, contesting separately, bagged just two and four seats, respectively.

In the 2019 election, BJP and JD(U) contested together and fielded 17 candidates each, winning 17 and 16 seats, respectively. With the LJP (Lok Janshakti Party) bagging six seats, the NDA sweep was total.

Jan Vishwas Rally, featuring INDIA bloc leaders such as the Congress' Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI’s general secretary D. Raja and CPI(ML)’s chief Dipankar Bhattacharya, alongside Akhilesh Yadav of the SP,  Lalu Prasad Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav
Jan Vishwas Rally, featuring INDIA bloc leaders such as the Congress' Mallikarjun Kharge and Rahul Gandhi, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI’s general secretary D. Raja and CPI(ML)’s chief Dipankar Bhattacharya, alongside Akhilesh Yadav of the SP, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav
Hindustan Times

Crucial differences between 2019 and 2024

In 2019, nationalistic fervour was whipped up in the wake of the Pulwama terror attack and Balakot airstrike.

In 2024, Nitish Kumar and JD(U) are pale shadows of themselves and the opposition appears less disorganised. The support of Muslims and Yadavs for the I.N.D.I.A. bloc looks surer and there is no ill-will against Lalu Yadav, Rahul Gandhi or Tejashwi Yadav among the backward classes in the state. The Left parties, especially the CPI(ML), which joined forces with the opposition in 2020 and is part of the I.N.D.I.A., have militant and disciplined workers, and will be contesting the Lok Sabha election together with RJD and INC for the first time.

Nitish Kumar seems to have lost the goodwill of the women in Bihar. Inflation and joblessness have triggered the migration of their menfolk. The government is reluctant or indifferent about filling job vacancies. Even prohibition, which was welcomed by the women, seems to have boomeranged—with rampant bootlegging and smuggling of liquor, youth are drinking at home and men are being booked, fined and thrown in jail. For women, it has been a nightmare.

Another important difference is that in 2019, Lalu Prasad Yadav was in jail. This time, he is out and about, meeting people and campaigning despite being in poor health (having undergone a kidney transplant). In fact, he went against the advice of his doctors to address the public meeting at Gandhi Maidan on 3 March. His speech, though rambling, was enough to rattle the BJP.

His casual remark, “Kaun hai Narendra Modi... kuch nahin hai... Hindu bhi nahin hai (Who is Narendra Modi... he is nothing... not even a Hindu)”, sent TV channels into a tizzy, as avid discussions were held on how a statement that attacked the PM’s family could only damage the I.N.D.I.A. bloc. Lalu’s constituency lapped it up, though, and ‘Modi ka Parivar’ and ‘Modi ka Asli Parivar’ trended on social media across the country.

A long-time Bihar watcher said that Lalu Yadav can effectively be used by Tejashwi as a guided missile against the BJP, with his one-liners and barbs being unleashed on a daily basis, hitting where it hurts. One way, he said, to compensate for limited resources (in comparison to the BJP) would be to use them innovatively.

The ‘bachcha’ comes of age

BJP leaders continue to deride Tejashwi Yadav as a ‘bachcha’, a greenhorn who does not know much about politics. Those who watched him campaign in the assembly election in 2020, when he led the RJD to emerge as a single-largest party and came close to steering the alliance to victory, would disagree.

Their confidence in the 33-year-old ‘Baccha of Bihar’ has not been dented by jibes about his being a ‘school dropout’ and a ‘failed cricketer’. Tejashwi earned his spurs as an organiser with a successful 10-day run in February through all the districts in the state, culminating in the rally at Gandhi Maidan last Sunday.

2024 Lok Sabha Polls: The battle for Bihar
Hindustan Times
2024 Lok Sabha Polls: The battle for Bihar
Hindustan Times

The rally drew a huge crowd, inviting comparisons with a similar rally organised in 1994 by Lalu Prasad at the same venue. Despite rain and inclement weather, several hundred thousand people turned up at the rally which was more orderly and better organised.

The speeches also stood out. At Lalu Yadav’s rallies, what stole the show was his one-liners. This time, the speakers impressed through their thoughtful deliberations on issues facing the country.

Tejashwi Yadav held his own alongside the likes of Akhilesh Yadav, Sitaram Yechury, Dipankar Bhattacharya and Rahul Gandhi. He also went for the jugular, saying, “Modiji is a factory of lies and his Bhartiya Janata Party is not a washing machine but a dustbin.”

Responding to PM Modi’s jibes about ‘jungle raj’ and his father’s achievements, Tejashwi shot back, “My father liberated millions from slavery, gave them a voice... the railways earned a profit of Rs 90,000 crore during his tenure as the railway minister... he got wheel and wagon factories opened in Bihar... he regularised the services of coolies and introduced kulladh (earthen teacups) in trains to ensure employment to potters. What have the railways done under your rule in the last 10 years?”

When referring to Modi’s guarantees, he cheekily asked, much to the delight of the crowd, “Can you guarantee that my uncle will stay with you?” The young man showed a wisdom beyond his years in eschewing disparaging and disrespectful language. He is clearly maturing and learning fast.

Nitish with his back to the wall

A diminished Nitish Kumar is making a brave attempt to save face. He
would like a simultaneous assembly election in the state and a respectable number of seats for JD(U) in the Lok Sabha. He would also like to cut
Chirag Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha down to size.

He blames Chirag Paswan—deftly used by the BJP in the 2020 assembly election—for reducing the JD(U) tally in the assembly to 45 as against the BJP’s 78 and the RJD’s 79. Kushwaha had broken away in 2013 from the JD(U), returning to the Mahagathbandhan as late as 2021, when he dissolved his breakaway Lok Samata Party. The three are uneasy bedfellows, and it shows.

BJP’s failure to declare the name of a single candidate from Bihar in its first list of 195 candidates has added to the unease. His camp has been claiming that seat adjustment among NDA allies would be completed by the evening of Thursday, 7 March, before he leaves for a six-day trip to London, ostensibly for a medical check-up.

Meanwhile, Paswan and Kushwaha have kept things suspenseful by giving PM Modi’s rallies at Aurangabad and Begusarai a miss, giving rise to furious speculation that they could join forces with Tejashwi Yadav.

Equally, they might just have run out of options and will accept whatever they finally get.

The ace up Chirag’s sleeve

Unlike his ageing and somewhat boorish uncle Pashupati Paras, Chirag Paswan is seen as a breath of fresh air. While being a caste leader, he has been playing it smart by focusing on his regional identity of ‘Bihar first’.

The younger generation of Dalits also seem to favour someone like Chirag, over the likes of Paras or Jitan Ram Manjhi.

He also has an ace up his sleeve. Though unevenly spread through the state, there are approximately 30,000–40,000 Paswan voters in most of the 40 parliamentary constituencies. In closely contested waveless elections, this number is enough to tilt the scales.

That is why Chirag Paswan is important for both the NDA and the I.N.D.I.A. bloc, and why his studied silence is disconcerting for both.

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