By Anuradha Mukherjee
NEW DELHI– The Bihar poll mandate is an endorsement of the state’s incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s performance, even as it marks RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s return to the political mainstream. RJD has surged past alliance partner JD-U in terms of vote share, but observers point out that Lalu may have reaped the benefits of being a part of the combine led by Nitish.
“Politics of caste has been superceded by politics of hope and delivery. Hope and delivery was very high with Nitish Kumar as a chief minister. Since 2007, all chief ministers who were seen as performing were voted back,” BJP leader Sudhanshu Mittal conceded while speaking to IANS.
The Mahagathbandhan or Grand Alliance comprising Janata Dal-United, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress won 178 seats in the 243-member house even as National Democratic Alliance (Bharatiya Janata Party, Lok Janshakti Party, Rashtriya Lok Samta Party and Hindustani Awam Morcha) won just 58 seats.
Even as Nitish Kumar took a backseat at the press conference in Patna, letting “bade bhaiyya” Lalu Prasad hold forth, political observers reminded that voters have cast their mandate in favour of the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance), so RJD winning more seats was not the only decisive factor.
The BJP that started on a developmental agenda faltered and got caught up in the semantics of state’s complicated caste and religious equations.
The BJP’s chief campaigners, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah failed to work their magic on the voters of the eastern state despite speeches high on firepower, polarising statements and the promise of a Rs 1.25 lakh crore economic package. BJP leaders admitted that this strategy did not work as it did not have a strong candidate to counter Nitish Kumar’s record of performance.
The Lalu Prasad-Nitish Kumar combine stole the show with canny political strategy, keeping their differences aside to ensure that the Modi-Amit Shah-led BJP did not “split the secular vote”. Both contested from 101 seats each, dividing even the daily campaign work evenly.
“Both Nitish and Lalu addressed 9 to ten political meetings every day and at the end of the meeting they would announce the other’s schedule and the next meeting in the neighbourhood. They managed to cover quite a lot of ground like that,” said a political observer associated with the JD-U.
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan felt the BJP faltered by talking caste and religious semantics instead of sticking to its original poll plank of development.
“In the first round, BJP ran away with it, did very well. But then RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat made his remarks on reservation. After that there was a sense of decline. The standard of discourse also declined overall from all sides,” he said.
Visvanathan also told IANS said that winning 27 seats was an “early Christmas gift for the Congress”. “It is boom time for Congress. Being a non-entity in Bihar to 27 seats is definitely an improvement. This is definitely an achievement for Rahul Gandhi (Congress vice-president),” he said.
However, the BJP said the votes were not necessarily for Congress. “When it is a combine, people vote for that. How do you explain a party like Congress that has no presence in Bihar getting 27 seats?” Mittal said.
The Congress countered the slight by reminding that it had a lot to do with nudging Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar to form and stick with the alliance.
“Rahul ji in a sense is the architect of this gathbandhan (alliance). Nitish ji is its face, Lalu gave it strength and Rahul ji helped cement this important alliance together by his clarity of thought on its leadership and path forward.
“The alliance was together based on its commonality of opposition to RSS and BJP’s politics and belief in a new brand of politics vis-à-vis the Modi brand of politics,” Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala told IANS.
“Modi staked his political leadership and the performance of this government on this election. It is a decisive rejection of both,” he added.
Nitish Kumar managed to garner support from several other state chief ministers like Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal of Aam Aadmi Party and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who made an appeal for votes on his behalf.
Lalu Prasad, who was literally relegated to the sidelines after his arrest in connection with the fodder scam in 1997, managed to rule de-facto after installing his wife, Rabri Devi, as the chief minister, but had to face electoral decimation in 2005 at the hands of Nitish Kumar who went on to also win the 2010 polls in alliance with BJP in the state. The JD-U-BJP combine ruled together till 2013 before parting ways.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Lalu Prasad’s party could muster only four seats, while Nitish Kumar fared worse with two seats. For the first time, the BJP seemed like a credible threat in the state after sweeping the polls with its allies and winning on 31 seats.
However, with this victory, Prasad is set to make a comeback in Bihar politics that many say could lead to bigger things – even an eventual shift back to central politics.
“Lalu to a certain extent is an interesting personality. People look at him with nostalgia. He does not have a threatening personality and is seen as someone who takes care of the interest of his electorate,” said Visvanathan.
However, his resounding success set detractors claiming this will be the return of the “jungle raj” unless the RJD legislators are “tamed”, even as analysts admitted he will now have much greater say within the party and will decide on the appointment of a deputy chief minister.