As the State goes to the polls today, the question is whether BJP will sweep federalism away or a young Tejashwi can halt the tide
This is probably one time when Nitish Kumar is relevant because of his irrelevance. And his young opponents, sons of his peers, thought to be irrelevant, are carving their own generational relevance at his jaded expense. The Janata Dal (United) leader and Bihar Chief Minister is for all practical purposes a face that nobody wants to see despite the BJP’s repeated endorsement of him as a chief ministerial candidate. And for a short time he may own the chair, towed by his hefty alliance partners, who don’t want to be seen as sinking him mid-course or appear unprincipled. For a man, who was once seen as a messianic figure and deeply trusted to pull the State out from the dark ages of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Yadav’s misrule, he has ended up being as one of its worst performers. For all the gush of the early years and the morality of prohibition, he stumbled and fumbled along the way without notching up the State’s development index significantly. And the pandemic sealed his fate as an inept administrator who had bungled on rehabilitating returnee migrants, students and flood refugees. For an entire generation growing up under Nitish’s rule, development has still been a pipe dream. Politically, the man who crafted his survival by pitting the majoritarian BJP against the secular-socialist Lalu, swinging between both depending on trade winds, and retaining the throne in the bargain, is now trapped by his own machinations. He cannot go back to Lalu, having shut the door forever when he deserted him and chose the BJP. And his relationship with the BJP, built on political expediency, is coming apart as its ideological push is against the grain of his inclusive politics. And although he crafted a new caste equation, rallying the downtrodden and nowhere people, the extreme backward castes and Mahadalits, that, too, can no longer be overplayed in a statewide epidemic of joblessness and hopelessness. At one time an asset as a regional leader, today Nitish is the BJP’s biggest liability. He knows that and can scarcely do anything about it except give in to uncharacteristically angry outbursts. The BJP, by all estimates so far, is expected to be the biggest gainer in these elections, and will be charioteering Nitish. For long, it has been ambitious about being the single largest party in the State and having its own CM face but publicly, it didn’t want to appear as an unreliable ally, which used regional partners for its own benefit and gobbled them up in the end. And despite promising big economic packages and special status in 2015, it didn’t quite push them, unwilling to benefit Nitish by association. But it did push the Modi aura and Central schemes aggressively and even deployed Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, who is the new-found favourite of Bihar’s electorate, comprising a large number of migrants and students, whom Nitish did not want to accept for fear of a disease spread but who found a home at camps in UP. And for all the public denials of losing faith in Nitish and denouncing co-ally Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Chirag Paswan for contesting against JD(U) outside the NDA fold, the fact is it wants the exact opposite. Chirag has been relentless and savage in his criticism of Nitish and proportionately laudatory about Modi, even vowing a life-long commitment to him and promising a BJP-LJP Government. The tacit support is evident as the central BJP leadership has barely pulled up Chirag in public or shared the stage, Modi included, with Nitish. If the verdict swings decisively in the BJP’s favour, then there’s no guarantee how long it will continue to back its CM nominee. As more and more of its allies get pushed into a corner, are choked and part ways, like the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab, the big question arising out of the Bihar results, assuming the BJP does deepen its footprint, will be whether the central party’s new target will be co-optive federalism, transplanting regional satraps with single-party rule in States and subverting the local agenda altogether. In his speeches, Modi has largely focussed on Central achievements than his plans for the State. The BJP’s biggest strength, that of the Modi aura, is also its biggest handicap at the State-level where it lacks magnetic leaders. The halo is good for swinging a verdict but deliverables need to be felt at the State level with a well-meaning leader.
It is here that RJD leader and Lalu’s son Tejashwi Yadav has undoubtedly seized the narrative in the public imagination. The huge crowds may not be a litmus test of a vote shift but he has certainly given what would have been a colourless election a talking point. Criticised much for not performing as Nitish’s deputy and cooling heels in Delhi, he has woken up to the duty of legacy, parked himself in the State, worked the grassroots and built a connect across segments. He knows full well that he cannot fill his father’s big shoes just yet and that RJD would still get the traditional caste-based loyalty and minority votes based on Lalu’s goodwill. He also knows that people know why his father is incarcerated, because of the scams in his time. So he wants to carve out a broader constituency for himself that is more contextual than historic, which will focus on what he has to offer afresh and help him bury taints of the past. So instead of harping on the RJD’s core plank of caste, he has made unemployment of the State’s youth the pivot of his campaign, promising 10 lakh jobs to the surging crowds that gathered to hear him out. Such was the impact of his speeches that the BJP, while appearing unfazed, had to promise 19 lakh jobs in its manifesto as a reactive strategy. He has even co-opted the Left to appeal to all marginalised voters irrespective of caste and evolved an inclusive umbrella of those cheated by the NDA-Nitish combine. In that sense, he embodies Bihar’s cure. Question is if he is too late for this round?
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 | Pioneer