The Battle Lines in the Forthcoming Bihar Elections

The stage is now almost all set for the Assembly elections in Bihar later this year. Having been humiliated in Delhi in the only other Assembly election that took place this year – when the party that had won all of Delhi’s seven LS seats could win only three of the seventy Assembly seats on offer – the BJP is desperate to reverse the tide in Bihar. But as Bihar moves into election mode, it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not just Nitish Kumar who will be held responsible for his failed and betrayed promises, Modi and BJP too will have to battle their own share of anti-incumbency having been in power earlier in Bihar and now for the last fifteen months at the Centre.

For the Modi-Shah duo it is a repeat of the propaganda blitzkrieg and the clever alliance strategy of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The alliance has in fact only grown bigger with the induction of former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi’s fledgling new party as the latest entrant in NDA and with Pappu Yadav – the expelled RJD leader and a rising Yadav strongman – too making pro-BJP overtures. But the BJP has not yet managed to zero in on a single leader of the Bihar BJP as the party’s chief ministerial candidate and Modi’s rhetoric has surely begun to sound tiring and hollow in the ears of the common Bihari voter.

Nitish Kumar, who shared power with the BJP till June 2013, is trying to answer the BJP with a bit of the latter’s own dose. After the debacle of the 2014 LS elections, Nitish had made Jitan Ram Manjhi the Chief Minister of the JDU government, but with the advent of the 2015 election year he unceremoniously ousted Manjhi and returned to the CM’s chair. He also hired the architect of Modi’s victorious 2014 campaign and began marketing himself as aggressively as Modi had done in the Lok Sabha elections. Even as Nitish Kumar formed a ‘grand alliance’ with Lalu Prasad’s RJD and the Congress, the alliance campaign projects Nitish Kumar as the singular leader.

For mainstream political pundits and pollsters, the election scene in Bihar therefore is a bipolar spectacle where Modi is leading the BJP charge with his high profile mega rallies and Nitish Kumar is defending his home turf by using Modi’s own words as weapons for counter-attack. In his first campaign rally in Muzaffarpur, Modi had said there was something wrong with Nitish Kumar’s DNA and now Nitish Kumar has launched a “take back your words” campaign collecting samples of nails and hair of his supporters for “DNA test”. Just as Modi always sought to shield himself in Gujarat with the slogan of ‘Gujarati pride’, Nitish Kumar is trying to invoke ‘Bihari asmita’ (Bihari identity/pride) to counter Modi’s contemptuous utterances.

Despite desperate attempts by the NDA and UPA camps to polarise the Bihari electorate and whip up an emotional agenda, both camps have to face the ground reality of widespread anger against the central state governments’ record of non-performance and betrayal. The issues that are uppermost in the minds of most people are quite straightforward: jobs, livelihood and rights. Road blockades, processions and sit-ins have become an everyday feature across the state. One can see not only farmers demonstrating for water, electricity and compensation for crop damage or contract and incentive-based workers taking out marches demanding regularisation and proper pay-scales, but even young school students – boys and girls – blocking roads demanding immediate disbursal of funds for student assistance and uniforms.

From 5 to 7 August, Bihar witnessed a remarkable strike action by dozens of organisations of contractual and incentive-based workers. Women working for midday meal (MDM) scheme, ICDS projects and the rural health mission came out on the streets in large numbers braving police repression, even occupying the streets near the Assembly in Patna at night. Ahead of the elections, the Nitish Kumar government has made some announcements to try and placate the agitators – like a pay scale for sections of agitating teachers (offering much less though than the pay scales currently enjoyed by permanent teachers) and a hike in the honorarium received by sections of rural development workers. But the trademark apathy and arrogance with which the government has been treating the employees and denying their just demands has only steeled the resolve of the agitating employees.

‘Development’ and ‘good governance’ have been the catchphrases of the Nitish Kumar government. In 2010 when Nitish Kumar talked of ‘good governance’ and ‘development with justice’ it struck a chord with the common people of Bihar as people could see some motion in the economy in place of the protracted institutionalised stagnation of the Lalu-Rabri era. But today the same rhetoric sounds utterly hollow and makes people feel angry. All pervasive corruption, bureaucratic domination and social injustice have reduced ‘good governance’ to a cruel joke. If roads and electricity are to be treated as the big symbols of development, the roads that had been constructed have not been maintained and electricity still remains conspicuously inaccessible to the poor. Flyovers and malls as a metaphor for development has been rejected even in Delhi and can certainly not hold good in Bihar.

As far as the common people of Bihar are concerned, there can be no doubt as to what constitute the basic parameters of development they need most: land, shelter and food rights; dignified employment; health and education for all; and assured access to improved infrastructure. But both Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi claim to be championing the ‘development agenda’ just by invoking some misleading macro figures – Nitish Kumar talks about an annual growth rate of more than 10 per cent and Narendra Modi talks about a Bihar package of Rs 125,000 crore and remain conspicuously silent about, say, the state of agriculture and employment in Bihar or the living conditions of large sections of the Bihari society. For anyone disputing his development claims, Nitish Kumar’s arrogant retort is: ‘get your eyes operated’!

Justice, the other big plank of Nitish Kumar, has turned out to be the biggest lie of his government. The Bhagalpur riot report submitted in the Assembly on the last day of the last session before the forthcoming elections and the most recent Cobrapost revelations about the Ranveer Sena-BJP nexus and how Nitish Kumar protected it by disbanding the Amir Das Commission before it could present its report have once again highlighted the systematic travesty of justice that Bihar witnessed under the Nitish Kumar government. Having granted impunity to the BJP in eight long years of power-sharing in Bihar, Nitish Kumar today is in no position to stand up to the feudal and communal aggression of the BJP.

The CPI(ML) and the Left in Bihar must come up as an effective third force vis-a-vis both the BJP and the new found JDU-RJD-Congress alliance. The coming together of the Left as a united and independent bloc has sent out a message of renewed hope and confidence among the people fighting on the ground for democracy, justice, dignity and social transformation. The need of the hour now is a vigorous mass campaign that can infuse the traditional Left bases and pockets with the fresh energy of ongoing struggles and powerfully project the Left vision and agenda in the electoral arena. Every gain the CPI(ML) and the Left will be able to make in the crucial state of Bihar will strengthen and inspire the countrywide battle of the people against the BJP’s corporate-communal offensive.

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