The Battle for Upmanship
It is easy to sit in Delhi and talk about Nitish Kumar’s stupendous efforts at transforming Bihar the “bad joke” into “brand Bihar”. Usually though, hinterland politics is more complex than a simple statistical graph which projects straightforward conclusions. The battle between JD(U) leader, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav could yet go either ways.
Just because Bihar has shown unprecedented economic growth of over 11% recently, it does not automatically guarantee success for the incumbent Chief Minister. There are bound to be other factors. Like economic fundamentals of Bihar, questions about where the growth came from, about the trickle down effect and impact on agri and rural sectors. Then there are caste equations, religious affiliations especially in context of Nitish’s partnership with the BJP and the nagging problem of Naxals.
The interesting part is that when I speak to a Bihari in New Delhi, he is all praise for Nitish; when I speak to a Bihari in Patna he is only cautiously optimistic and when I speak to friends who hail from Bihar villages, the response to Nitish is lukewarm, where they talk about what more needs to be done. Herein lies the paradox that Nitish would have to grapple with.
An engineer by education and once the only English speaking member of the Janata Party steering committee, Nitish Kumar is believed to be adept at Kautilya Niti of modern day politics. Clearly, Nitish has won the perception battle. That is why Bihar is spoken with a new found respect outside the state. For a community which is used to regular mockery and being booted out of states like Maharashtra, any positive development and progress is more than welcome. It is not just a feel good story about the state, but a matter of self respect.
This is a segment that was up to its neck in suffering the bucolic Lalu making a joke of himself and the state. The city dweller is also now getting to taste some tangible fruits of development. Malls have cropped up in Patna, the first multiplex has been inaugurated and some chic brands have found it worthwhile to set up shop. In this context, Nitish would be able to, in most likelihood, attract the urban and educated voter.
What would attract people inhabiting the countryside is the improved connectivity owing to the massive road construction projects. And probably, employment opportunities created under NREGA and other schemes for construction work.
But to comprehensively gauge Nitish’s performance, it would require a more erudite evaluation. Contrary to his claims, the Bihar growth story is very much a result of the generous central dole outs which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was pointing to during a rally in the state. The Bihar balance sheet clearly points out that the state’s economic fundamentals are still not sound, nor are funds self generated.
No real work has been done for the farm sector. Nitish’s record in the organized sector is worse, where output actually has fallen from Rs 1,150 crore in 1999-2000 to Rs 790 crore in 2004-05 at constant prices and then stagnated.
Even his double-digit growth figures are under the lens. The first whistle-blowers were some professors from Patna who showed how calculations made by the state government were dubious and the real figure was much lower.
What goes in favour of Nitish is that most people can’t cut through the financial jargon. The added advantage is that his tenure is being compared with Lalu’s rock bottom performance. So any growth looks like a miracle.
In another sense, people in the rural areas don’t even care for robust growth figures. They are looking for basic needs to be met. On this parameter, the JD(U) leader has delivered to some extent but there is a huge scope for improvement.
This is also where most of Bihar resides and cares for which caste he/she belongs to. Knowing that he belongs to the Kurmi community, which is powerful but fairly small in numbers, he cannot rely on caste based support alone. Therefore, the CM is looking at using the development plank to replicate electoral results which the UPA achieved at the Centre. By giving hope to the downtrodden of a better tomorrow, he is trying to secure his own future.
Lalu Prasad Yadav, who has been out of luck for sometime, is wracking his brains to reinvent himself. It will not be a surprise if the people of the state don’t forgive him for his sins. I remember travelling through Bihar during his regime and encountering pot holes on roads that could be turned into mini swimming pools.
Besides being mired in a plethora of corruption cases and links with criminal elements, the wily RJD leader has the notoriety of delivering a scandalous zero growth rate figure between 1991-92 and 1995-96 for the state. The average growth rate in Bihar throughout his 15 years in power remained consistently below 5%.
Known for playing to the gallery with rustic wisecracks, Lalu needs to make himself relevant in an era where deliverables are an estimate of a person’s worth. The former CM and Union Railways Minister faces additional problems of defections in the party. Close confidant Akhilesh Singh has deserted him and so has brother-in-law Subhash Yadav.
Moreover, RJD MP from Maharajganj, Uma Shankar Singh, may play Vibhishan.
His caste remains a trump card for him and Yadavs may still support him. But will they cast their ballot for a man who is responsible to a large extent for the USD 148 per capita income of the state versus the national average of USD 999?
This is the reason why Nitish is offering free cycles, Lalu free motorcycles, Paswan promising free kerosene and BJP complimentary goats!
RJD, which is contesting from 168 seats, while its alliance partner LJP is fielding its candidates in 75 seats, have released a manifesto which has goodies for the urban and rural, with a heavy accent on Dalits, backwards, poor and the minority. Lalu knows that the economically weak section may be his best bet.
This brings us to the crucial test that the two leaders will face on Muslim turf.
Nitish, who had taken a political somersault to be a part of the NDA government in 1998, has done everything to distance himself from the BJP and its saffron leaders. But the Muslim conundrum is not so easy to solve. RJD may not get Muslim votes en bloc, and the extent of damage to JD(U) in the 243-seat battle may end up being very complex. Rather than voting for a particular party, Muslims may vote strategically against the BJP.
The strongest candidate against BJP may get Muslim support. And this candidate could be from any party – Congress, RJP, LJP.
This pattern of voting could spring up a few surprises and go anybody’s way.
Lalu understands the consequence of the poll verdict. Failure to make a comeback could mean his political obituary. Probably that is why he has already launched his gen-next, the 20-year-old Tejaswi, into politics. Lalu’s ultra smart ploy to move away from the Congress during the parliamentary elections had backfired. His being left out in the cold of the UPA coalition means his stature at the Centre is dwarfed and already fairly insignificant. It’s no loss for the Congress which is happy to try out Rahul Gandhi’s experiment of reviving the party and bringing it back on its feet in the state.
Nitish is on a strong footing to get a second term, but caste and religion combinations can sometimes play spoil sport. The BJP and Chandrababu Naidu’s TDP have faced the music in over-glamorising their achievements and underplaying the significance of the Aam Admi in the past after all.
On the other hand, a second term could put him in the same league as some others like Narendra Modi and Sheila Dikshit, where the CM becomes synonymous with the state’s success story. Nitish knows that he has the unique opportunity to occupy this space. Inability to cobble together a government for the second term would mean that his role would remain restricted as opposition in the state. With NDA miles away from power at the Centre, there are hardly any prospects for him in New Delhi.
The true measure of Nitish’s government success and his hands on style of functioning as CM can be gauged only after another term. Even the financial reforms heralded by Dr Manmohan Singh took a decade for their results to be felt. The question arises, is the public in Bihar willing to give him that chance?
Lalu’s method of functioning as CM was nearly autocratic. When his daughter was to wed, his people could walk into any store and walk out with just about anything. No bills paid, no questions asked. Histrionics worked for him long enough. Having being cut to size, I am sure the RJD leader would have put on his thinking cap.
While Bhojpuri music industry is doing brisk business, Lalu knows that he would probably need more than his gimmickry skills and warped Bollywood songs to salvage his prospects in Bihar.
The stage is set for a fight to the finish between Lalu and the man who was once known as his alter ego. It is eventually for the people of Bihar to decide between the leader and the laggard.