Hindutva push

Print edition : May 10, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (second from right) and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan (left) at an election rally in Bhagalpur on April 11. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

The BJP pitches for militant Hindutva and muscular nationalism in Bihar, while the Congress and other opposition alliance partners seem unable to get their act together.

The National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) chief election strategy in Bihar seems to be built around militant Hindutva and muscular nationalism. Hindutva flag-bearers were at their aggressive best during a procession in celebration of Ramnavami, which fell on April 13, five days ahead of the next round of polling. Its participants brandished swords and guns and swayed deliriously to the chants of Jai Sri Ram. The purportedly religious event turned into a Hindutva showcase with a sea of saffron flags and colourful tableaux of not only gods and goddesses but also Indian Army soldiers.

With senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders like Ravi Shankar Prasad participating in the procession, the political message was clear. Old-timers in Patna said they had never seen such aggressive celebrations. The message was writ large: “Rajtilak ki karo taiyari, aa rahe hain bhagwadhari”. (Get ready for the swearing-in ceremony, those donning saffron are coming to power.)

Travelling across Bihar, in areas that are yet to vote, one comes across only one topic that BJP supporters harp on, national security. “Modiji has taught Pakistan a lesson and he should come back” is the refrain. Unemployment, poor roads, absence of basic amenities, problems caused by demonetisation and goods and services tax (GST) have taken a back seat.

Muzaffarpur, in neighbouring Patna, which was included on the list of smart cities five years ago, continues to grapple with traffic woes, garbage problems and bad roads, the bane of growing Indian cities. Voters here laugh when reminded of the “smart city” status. The local MP, Ajay Nishad of the BJP, who is contesting again, evokes anger. People do not recall having seen him in their constituency ever and vow to vote him out. Yet, the number of people who are angry with him but will likely still vote for him is also big, and it is because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the fray opposite him is Dr Jugal Kishore Chaudhary from the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), which is part of the Grand Alliance in Bihar.

Neighbouring Hajipur has been Ram Vilas Paswan’s constituency for decades. His brother, Pashupati Kumar Paras, is contesting this time. Facing him is the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Shiv Chander Ram. Residents have nothing to say when asked what the seven terms of Ram Vilas Paswan as the representative from the constituency have done for it. “He promised to build a hospital but could not get land for it,” said Kamal Sah, a pan seller in Hajipur’s Akbar Malahi village, which, incidentally, has been adopted by Paswan but has nothing to show for it.

The BJP’s propaganda on national security, however, has pushed everything else out of the reckoning. “People would even vote for a dog in Modi’s name,” said Munna Sah, who sells tea and snacks in the village. Ask him why, and he says: “Pakistan ko sabak sikhaya, is liye” (He taught Pakistan a lesson, that is why).

So even though the Modi government has failed to deliver on its promises, his diehard supporters seem to have forgiven him because he taught Pakistan a lesson. The Nitish Kumar government’s development work, especially the good power situation and comparatively better law and order situation, only adds up. “Modiji’s nationalism and Nitishji’s governance and alliance model are pushing us forward. People see a bright future for themselves in this combination and that is why we will win at least 32 out of 40 seats,” said an upbeat Rajiv Ranjan, Janata Dal (United) spokesman. He added that the opposition alliance has helped by not getting its act together. “The extremely backward castes are still with us, and that adds to our vote share,” he said.

The point about the opposition alliance not working out well on the ground has some truth in it. Senior State Congress leaders admitted to this correspondent that they had to give up strong seats for the sake of the alliance. “In the interest of the alliance at the national level, we have had to suffer losses. We could have fought on our own, but that would have been against the larger good,” said a senior Congress leader in Patna. He believed, however, that all was not lost: “Modi’s support is visible, ours is low-profile but strong . Their aggressive nationalism is only to divert attention from failures.”

But even he agreed that if the RJD had given the Congress its due and if the Congress leadership had distributed the ticket wisely, the party cadre would have been enthused and more visible on the street. “Since outside candidates have been given preference in ticket distribution, our workers have been demoralised and are not so active on the ground,” he said. Besides, the Congress has failed to get its social and caste calculations right. For example, many State Congress leaders told this correspondent that not giving the ticket to a single Brahmin in Bihar, especially in Mithilanchal area, has demoralised Congressmen to a great extent. The Mithilanchal region has 15 odd seats where Brahmins are in a position to influence the outcome. Most Congressmen felt fielding Kirti Azad, the BJP MP who crossed over to the Congress recently, from Darbhanga would have helped the party in the region. But he was sent to Dhanbad in Jharkhand, where he faces hostility from Congress workers. The Congress had to give up the Darbhanga seat for the RJD’s Abdul Bari Siddiqui. The BJP has fielded Gopal Ji Thakur in Darbhanga and he stands a good chance there.

Madhubani was yet another seat which Congressmen felt should have been theirs but which went to the VIP, which has fielded Badri Purbe. Congress leaders feel the opposition has gifted this seat on a platter to the BJP. The BJP has fielded Ashok Yadav, son of MP Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav, who enjoys a good reputation. Congress leaders are of the opinion that Dr Shakeel Ahmad, former Minister and party spokesman, should have been fielded from Madhubani. “This was the best chance for the Congress to win this seat. We flunked again,” said a senior party leader in Patna. Shakeel Ahmad has decided to contest as an independent candidate. “Somehow, our leadership is not getting the right picture in the State, which is reflected in the way we have surrendered to the RJD or even in the way the ticket has been distributed,” said a Congress leader. The sentiment seems to be shared by many senior State leaders. Yet, some people seem to have started seeing through Modi’s game and are willing to make amends for “past mistakes”. Chandan Kumar, a medical representative in Muzaffarpur, was a Modi supporter in 2014. He even campaigned aggressively for him. Today he is frustrated. “Where are the jobs? Where are the acchhe din?” he asks. This correspondent met many like him who said that their aim was to vote Modi out because “we want peace and roji-roti”.

Purnima S. Tripathi has travelled in Patna, Hajipur and the districts of Muzaffarpur and Saran for this story.