“Yeh haq aur loot ke beech ki ladai hai , yeh jumla aur rojgar ke beech ki ladai hai. Hamein nafrat nahi adhikar chahiye, jumla nahi rojgar chahiye .” (This is a fight between our rights and loot, between false promises and employment. We don’t want hatred, we want our rights. We don’t want false promises, we want employment.)
This description of the political contest in Bihar by Kanhaiya Kumar, former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students’ Union president and Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate from Begusarai Lok Sabha constituency, aptly sums up the issues at stake in this crucial State which sends 40 members to the Lok Sabha. Bihar, the hotbed of caste-based politics, is vertically split on the issue of “Modi or No Modi”, blurring caste and religious boundaries.
The contrast between the Modi camp and the “No Modi” camp is stark. The pro-Modi lot is the urban, middle/upper middle class and professionally qualified people; rich businessmen, affluent farmers, government officials—in short the babu sahebs . In contrast, the “No-Modi” voice is that of the rehri wala selling litti (snack) on the pavement, the poor farmer dressed in a crumpled dhoti-kurta, the quiet, lungi-clad and bearded shopkeeper, the tired looking youngster sporting a stubble and with vacant eyes. In short, they are the have-nots who feel betrayed.
These are the people who have waited for four years and more only to wake up from their stupor and realise that there is no “acchhe din” for them as promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014: there are no jobs, no money in their bank accounts, no business opportunities, and no “double the MSP [minimum support price]” price for farmers. The social fabric is in tatters and communal harmony is in discord. All that is being served to them are sermons on how Pakistan has been taught a lesson and how the entire opposition is pro-Pakistan, siding with the terrorists, daring to ask for “saboot” (proof) after the Balakot air strike.
Bihar is politically crucial for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won 22 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the State in 2014, bagging a vote share of 29.86 per cent. Its ally, the Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJSP), led by Ram Vilas Paswan, won six seats, with 6.5 per cent of the votes. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Lalu Prasad and the Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar fought separately and won four and two seats respectively, with the RJD getting 20.46 per cent of the votes and the JD(U) 16.04 per cent. The Congress, which won two seats, got 8.56 per cent of the votes. With the Congress and the RJD fighting the election together this time and the JD(U) back in the BJP stable, the equations have changed.
Obviously, the BJP would want to repeat its 2014 performance, and with the JD(U) as an ally now, besides the LJSP, it has reasons to feel upbeat. But the ground reality has changed since 2014 when the Congress was grappling with corruption charges in addition to its burden of having to fight the anti-incumbency factor. It had nothing new to offer the voter then and the Modi wave, which came with tall claims of acchhe din, was sweeping the nation. With that hype over now, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) faces a stark reality. The most backward classes and mahadalits, who had shifted their loyalty to the BJP in the previous elections after deserting Nitish Kumar, are now back in the RJD-Congress camp. Most importantly, Muslims, who supported Nitish Kumar, and the BJP to some extent, in 2014, are firmly back in the RJD-Congress camp. This makes the electoral arithmetic look heavily tilted against the NDA.
Voices from the ground
What has brought about this change? “They have done nothing for the poor. There are no jobs for us, no other work,” said Vishal, a college student whose father, Karu, now sells litti in Nalanda. Karu used to ply a rickshaw until 2014, but gave that up four years ago, hoping for something better to happen as promised by Modi. Vishal said there was a lot of disappointment in youngsters like him. “They promise garibi hatao [eradicate poverty], but instead they are removing the garib [poor],” he said.
Ramesh Kumar, another young man, said no matter what, Modi should not come back to power. “Not a single one of his promises was fulfilled. We did not get jobs, and relations between Hindus and Muslims got vitiated,” he said.
Neeraj Chandravanshi, a tea seller in neighbouring Biharsharief, said the BJP had destroyed “aloo, baloo and Laloo”. The reference is to the potato farmer for whom it was a disaster; those who earned their living by sand mining, which is now banned; and Lalu Prasad, considered the messiah of poor people, who is in jail.
Mohammad Ismael, a potato farmer from Nalanda, said the vote should go to the party which talks of “aman” (peace). Mohammad Nizamuddin, a fruit seller from Nawada, said Modi promised “vikas” and instead delivered “vinash”. “We want no bloodshed, we want peace,” he said.
Luv Kumar, an insurance agent, who voted for the BJP in 2014, said he regretted his decision to do so. “We supported the BJP then, but what have we got? Why all of a sudden this air strike? Why is Modi taking every decision in the dead of the night? All his decisions are wrong. The Congress should come back at the Centre,” he said. Echoing his sentiments, Mohammad Iqbal said people should vote against the BJP this time, no matter who the candidate on the other side was. “Muslims are now realising the truth. The Congress was falsely vilified in 2014,” he said.
Rhetoric on ‘national security’
But those in the pro-Modi camp believe all this anger is just for media consumption. “Eighty per cent of them will vote for us because Modi ji has raised the country’s honour in the world, taught Pakistan a lesson and curbed terrorist activities. People have made up their minds,” said Raj Kumar, an LJSP supporter in Nawada. The fact that the entire NDA discourse revolved around national security, Pakistan and terrorism became obvious when speaker after speaker at Union Minister Giriraj Singh’s debut meeting in Begusarai talked about how “Bharat mata ki raksha” was the only issue at stake here and how the entire opposition was siding with Pakistan and atankwaad (terrorism) by asking Modi for proof in Balakot. Giriraj Singh, who won from Nawada in 2014, has now been fielded from Begusarai where he is facing Kanhaiya Kumar Kumar and the RJD’s Tanveer Hassan. Addressing the meeting in Begusarai, he thundered, “You tell me who should rule the country? Those who support Pakistan, those who ask for saboot or those who destroy them?”
The BJP camp is upbeat that the Modi wave is still appealing to people and since the opposition has no prime ministerial candidate, the contest has already been decided in their favour. “Will people vote in favour of development, air strike, surgical strike, or for Rahul Baba? The sacrilegious alliance of opposition parties has started crumbling already,” said Ashok Bhatt, chief of the BJP’s media cell in Patna.
The Kanhaiya Kumar factor
But those who are opposed to Modi say their vote will go to anyone who is in a position to defeat Modi, alliance or no alliance. The classic example of this was seen in Begusarai where both the RJD and the CPI have fielded their candidates against Giriraj Singh as they could not reach an understanding. The people of Begusarai, however, have already declared their preference for Kanhaiya Kumar. “He is the representative of voices against Modi’s policies. The contest here is between Giriraj and Kanhaiya Kumar because people want their representative to be seen and heard in Parliament. Kanhaiya Kumar has been opposing Modi for the past few years. Tanveer Hassan is nowhere in the contest,” said Dr S.K. Sharma of Begusarai. According to him, alliances have become irrelevant in today’s context as people will vote for or against Modi, irrespective of parties.
How this is working on the ground became clear a short while later when, even as this correspondent was talking to Kanhaiya Kumar, local RJD office-bearers Ram Kumar Sharma and Prabhat Kumar arrived to pledge their support for him. “ Modi ko harane ke liye sab badha, bandhan tod kar aayenge ,” (We will break all ties and restrictions to defeat Modi) they declared, saying they and many others like them would accompany Kanhaiya Kumar when he files his nomination papers and would also campaign for him.
Explaining this groundswell of support for him, Kanhaiya Kumar said this was because people had seen through the BJP’s game of jumla s (false promises) and were yearning for change. “The aspirational youth who had voted for Modi in 2014 and is feeling cheated are coming to me. Those who want real issues like employment, education and medical facilities to be addressed are coming to me. Those who do not want communal frenzy, who do not want hatred, violence, they all are coming to me,” he said. And as if to prove him right, a law student from Kanpur, Rama Kant, arrived. Touching Kanhaiya Kumar’s feet, he said he would help in his campaign because he was impressed with the way he was raising real issues concerning youths.
According to Kanhaiya Kumar, the BJP’s narrative on rashtravaad [nationalism] “was just a ploy to divert attention from their failure to deliver on real issues.” “They are selling rashtravaad, like they sold religion before,” he said.
Whether the vacuous rashtravaad prevails or people would see through the game and vote for some real change will only become clear on May 23, but for now, the battle seems to be between “deshbhakti” and “deshdroh”, between jumlas and real issues. Bihar votes in all phases starting from April 11. In the first round of voting on April 11, where Gaya, Aurangabad, Jamui and Nawada will go to vote, the BJP had to give up two of its seats to keep its alliance partners happy. Nawada, which was represented by Giriraj Singh, is being contested by Chandan Kumar Singh of the LJSP. He is the brother of Surajbhan Singh, known as “Bahubali” in Bihar. He is facing a tough fight from the RJD’s Vibha Devi, who is the wife of Raj Ballabh Yadav, former RJD MLA from Nawada, who had to vacate his seat after his conviction in a criminal case.
Gaya, too, a seat held by the BJP, is being contested by the JD(U) this time. Jamui is another high-profile seat where Ram Vilas Paswan’s son, Chirag Paswan, is facing a tough contest from the Jitan Ram Manjhi-led Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular (HAMS). Chirag Paswan also faces stiff opposition from the upper-caste Rajput lobby within the JD(U), making it even more challenging for him.
The voting on April 18 is interesting in the sense that the BJP is not contesting any of those seats; it has left them to its ally, the JD(U). The seats to keep an eye on are Banka, Munger and Katihar. In Banka, the RJD’s sitting MP Jai Prakash Yadav is once again in the fray, while in Munger the JD(U)’s Lallan Singh, a powerful leader, is trying his luck against the Congress. Katihar will most likely be a test case whether Muslims have gone back to the Congress. This seat is being contested by the sitting MP, Tariq Anwar, on the Congress ticket; he was earlier the face of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Bihar.
Though the NDA camp is upbeat about all these seats, the voters may spring a real surprise for them.