Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his much-hyped election campaign in Bihar by holding three rallies, in Rohtash, Gaya and Bhagalpur. Modi’s entry was desperately anticipated by the ruling Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party combine in the state which is facing discontent due to a dire economic situation. Yet, the PM’s rallies revealed the unusual sight of two leaders who were increasingly disconnected from the people, and hence, unable to fire up the campaign.
But, the most astonishing thing happened right in the first rally in Dehri-on Sone, Rohtash district -- that monument to Bihar’s deindustrialisation in south-east. Modi revealed the BJP’s unbridled ambition as well as hubris by reportedly claiming that his party’s long-time ally, Nitish Kumar’s first 10 years as chief minister had gone waste and that it was only after he (Modi) became Prime Minister (and JD-U returned to National Democratic Alliance or NDA fold) that good work could be done in the state.
“In the three to four years that I have worked with Nitish Kumar, you would have seen how projects have moved with three to four times their usual speed... How development works have been speeded up by five times at places,” Modi reportedly said.
This rather bizarre analysis was embedded in a critique of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which had ruled at the Centre before 2014. Modi said they didn’t allow Nitish Kumar to do anything.
This may sound par for the course because both Modi and Nitish were obsessed with Congress and Lalu Prasad Yadav, the erstwhile chief minister who was replaced by Nitish in 2005. But, to trash his own ally, who is sitting on the dais even as he speaks, requires some more parsing.
Remember, that in the current election campaign, Nitish Kumar has been repeatedly counter posing what he claims to be the past 15 years of good governance, as opposed to the previous misrule under Lalu Prasad.
Modi contradicted Nitish in his face, but in an oblique way – and patted himself on the back for good measure. What is the sub-text here?
Modi Wants BJP to Become No.1 in Bihar
BJP has been a junior partner to Nitish Kumar for over 25 years now. In the last election it lost badly, getting only 53 seats. It managed to woo Nitish Kumar back and again came into power in 2017 through the backdoor, cocking a snook at the mandate. This was not, however, a satisfactory state of affairs for Modi, Amit Shah and the Sangh Parivar. They want to rule Bihar, the last of the Hindi heartland states where they had been unable to come into their own.
Sensing that the tide is turning against Nitish Kumar’s misrule in Bihar, the BJP has decided to play a double- edged game in this election. It is contesting in alliance with JD-U, but it is also trying to cut Nitish Kumar down to size and gain the upper hand.
Nitish Kumar, too, realises that he is facing a tough election and has no choice but to align with BJP. This has led to a seat division of 121 for BJP and 122 for JD-U – an unprecedented come down for Nitish Kumar because BJP had won only 53 seats in the last election. Yet, he agreed to give them more than twice that many seats.
BJP has also apparently propped up Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), its NDA ally, to contest against only JD-U. After LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan’s recent passing away, his son Chirag Paswan has declared his allegiance to PM Modi but has sworn to defeat Nitish Kumar. Although the BJP top brass has denied any ‘underhand’ deal with LJP, the facts cannot be denied – LJP is putting up candidates only against JD-U, threatening Nitish Kumar’s share in the final seats tally.
In this context, PM Modi’s declaration that it was he (and BJP) that was behind any good work that has happened in Bihar in the past three-four years becomes clear. Modi is telling voters: the faults lie with Congress and Lalu Yadav, and maybe with Nitish himself, but BJP is still your saviour. He is trying to turn this crisis into an opportunity to establish BJP as the main party in Bihar.
How chief minister Nitish Kumar counters this trashing of his record will become known in the next few days. Or, he may just take it lying down bereft of any options. But for the voters of Bihar, the gauntlet has been thrown.
Modi’s Last Gamble
Modi, however, doesn’t realise the extreme risk this gambit carries. All this is built on the assumption of his personal infallibility and appeal. It could work if he and his party were popular and trusted for good governance. But that is far from the case.
Apart from Arunachal Pradesh, BJP has not won a single of the 18 Assembly elections held in the past few years. It has outright lost several big states, such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, it was abandoned by its ally, Shiv Sena, after the election and is now sitting in Opposition in Maharashtra, in Haryana, BJP had to cobble together an alliance with a regional outfit to retain power, in Karnataka and then in Madhya Pradesh, it had to split the ruling parties to regain power, and in the North-East it is riding piggy-back on one regional party or another.
This is so because people are making a clear distinction between state governments and the Central government. BJP’s record in the states is being punished relentlessly. It would have received the same treatment at the Centre, had there been an alternative.
In Bihar, specifically, the people are angry and disillusioned. Unemployment is running at a distressingly high level of around 12%, even after the onerous lockdown has been eased. COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the state, with its healthcare system in shambles.
Prices of essential commodities, especially vegetables are sky-high. Farmers are up in arms over continued neglect. Deindustrialisation of Bihar has turned it into a migrant- based economy. And, corruption and crime, those favourite issues that Nitish Kumar always claimed as having been effectively ended, are as rampant as ever.
This not only bodes no good for Nitish Kumar but also for his partner, the BJP. It is naïve, therefore, on the part of Modi to think that voters will hold only Nitish Kumar responsible and not blame his junior partner, BJP, which has been tagging along behind him all these years.
Perhaps, Modi likes to play risky games. Or, perhaps, it is a last throw of the dice, a vain attempt to rescue something from nothing.