Assembly polls in any state are consequential in the larger framework of our democracy, and in the case of Bihar they give us a feel of the political currents in the Hindi heartland which, historically, has had a particular salience in shaping the politics of the country.
The three-stage state election in Bihar kicks off on October 28 and the result will be known on November 10, but so close to voting day it is not quite clear which way the wind is blowing. In the ordinary course, the outright win of the JD(U)-BJP alliance that chief minister Nitish Kumar leads might have been taken for granted since there are no known stars in the fray on the opposite side. This is indeed what media reporting and anecdotal evidence initially appeared to suggest.
But with the campaign picking up, the turbulence in the waters of the Ganga, Kosi, Gandak and the Son are becoming more evident.
In the normal course, the fortunes of the CM, who has been in office for three consecutive terms, may have been the focal point of interest. But this time around there is a related issue that will be keenly watched, namely the trajectory of the BJP. But for a short break between 2015-17, Mr Kumar has been a steady ally of the BJP, helping the saffron party to consolidate its hold in the Gangetic plain. But there are signs that the BJP may have its own CM in the state. Like in neighbouring UP, where BJP by turns partnered the SP and the BSP before it raised its sights to include the CM’s chair, in Bihar too the BJP may be getting ready to quit being bridesmaid. Chirag Paswan, the young, inexperienced, LJP leader, was thought to be its pawn in this venture.
But there could be trouble ahead. If LJP cuts into JD(U) votes in any substantial way, its game may end up helping the RJD-Congress-Left Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) pose an even bigger challenge to the JD(U)-BJP alliance, with JD(U) weakened on account of Mr Paswan’s effort. Thus, the game that BJP-LJP is accused of launching may just turn out to be a double-edged sword.
Lalu Yadav’s young son Tejashwi, who had been written off as a factor since his father is still languishing in jail and is not available to campaign, is actually turning out to be quite a handful with his promise of 10 lakh jobs the minute he takes office. The unemployment issue is serious all over India but has a special resonance in Bihar since the state saw the largest number of very poor returnees from the big cities in the wake of the coronavirus-related lockdown. In contrast, the CM’s campaign is lacklustre, still harping on issues of a decade ago. The NDA is hoping that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will electrify the mood for the incumbents. If Mr Kumar beats the odds, he could remain CM even if the BJP does well. If he slips, and the BJP doesn’t have a clear majority on its own (an unlikely scenario), the BJP may be pushed to scout for post-poll friends. That could muddy the waters.