Nitish is seeking a new mandate, with emotive rhetoric deflecting the debate on performance
The Assembly election in Bihar will be taking place in unprecedented circumstances over three phases, in the last week of October and the first week of November. This will be the first Assembly election since COVID-19 disrupted normal life, and the performance of the governments on the health and economic fronts will become an issue in the election campaign. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s record of 15 years is mixed. After initial improvements in governance after he took over in 2005, there was an evident downslide, culminating in the bungled handling of the pandemic. He deserted the BJP in 2013 and won the 2015 Assembly election in alliance with the RJD, only to return to the BJP’s embrace soon. His popularity is waning, while the BJP is on the defensive on questions of border security, economic stagnation, and farmer backlash. The State and the Centre, jointly and separately, mismanaged the return of migrant workers from other States to Bihar during the lockdown. They have held together to distract the debate from substantive issues to emotive rhetoric. The suspected suicide of a film actor who hailed from Bihar is being used by both parties to fan caste and parochial emotions. The brazenly partisan conduct of Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairperson Harivansh — a member of the JD(U) — during the monsoon session is being hailed as adherence to Bihari ethos and his critics are being labelled anti-Bihar.
It is not that the NDA is free from internal squabbles. Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan is sulking after the entry of another Dalit leader, Jitan Ram Manjhi, into the alliance. Still, the social coalition of upper castes, non-Yadav backward castes and considerable segments of Dalits behind the NDA is largely intact as the campaign formally begins. It is not unbreachable, but the Opposition, commanded by RJD leader Tejashwi Pratap, does not appear battle-ready. The RJD, the Congress and the Left might ultimately form an alliance, but not before more bad blood is generated and confusion spread among their supporters. This will be the first Bihar Assembly election in 30 years in which Lalu Prasad is not the central campaigner. The junior Yadav is often compared, unfairly, to his father. Hamstrung by his siblings, and dealing with a changed social environment, he has the tough task of selectively appropriating his father’s legacy and selectively disowning it. Muslims constitute nearly 17% of the State’s population, and it will be interesting to watch how the NDA and the RJD-led alliance address them regarding the National Population Register and allied concerns. The election will be a health check of Indian democracy in the post-pandemic era. There is potential for a new imagination in Bihar, but, unfortunately, that is not visible on the horizon yet.