Bihar polls: Nitish Kumar's copycat strategy fools no one; Lalu may be only gainer

By Neha Srivastava

Phir ek baar, Nitish Sarkar? Really?

As much as Nitish Kumar seems to hate Narendra Modi, he seems very much in awe of him. His entire Bihar campaign sounds like a carbon copy of  Modi’s 2014 campaign. What Nitish Kumar doesn’t realise is that the memory of the 2014 election is way too fresh for this. From “Parche pe Charcha” that reminds you of “Chai Pe Charcha” to “Ghar Ghar Dastak” which reminds you of “Har Har Modi, Ghar Ghar Modi", he appears to be copying every detail from the Modi campaign. "Phir ek baar, Nitish Sarkar" is not too different from "Ab ki Baar, Modi Sarkar."

There is even a “Munna se Nitish” comic book coming out, which sounds like a copy of “Bal Narendra”, an illustrated book that covered Narendra Modi’s childhood. Even the “Bihari DNA” campaign is reminiscent of the “Gujarati Asmita” campaign of Modi in 2007. Finally, Nitish Kumar’s rallies seem to have acquired names just like Modi’s. Imitation may be the best form of flattery, for sure, but I hope Nitish realises that imitation only creates replica artists, not Van Goghs.

But, on a more serious note, one wonders what happened to Nitish Kumar? An able administrator, Nitish forged the grand JDU-BJP alliance and together they were able to deliver “Sushasan” (good governance) in Bihar. Every Bihari can recount how those days defined “Achche Din,” especially after Lalu Prasad Yadav's preceding tenures. Everything was working well until Nitish Kumar started a very public campaign against Narendra Modi. From avoiding him at dinner to espousing Ishrat Jahan’s cause as “Bihar ki Beti”, Nitish’s dislike for Modi was no secret. In a way, Nitish should be given credit for recognising Modi’s potential much before anyone else and it makes sense that he saw a space for himself as the non-Congress option against Modi, especially given the latter’s very “Hindutva” credentials.

 Bihar polls: Nitish Kumars copycat strategy fools no one; Lalu may be only gainer

PTI image.

But then, what went wrong? Pretty much everything, one can say. Modi’s popularity kept growing and the list of opponents along with it. Nitish Kumar was no longer the only face against Modi; he was one of many. One has to wonder if Nitish Kumar played his cards too soon by breaking up with BJP in 2012.

So now we have a Nitish Kumar, whose claim to fame as the “Sushasan Babu” of Bihar is in tatters after joining hands with his biggest opponent under the banner of “secular forces” against “communal BJP”. Obviously, this begs the question, why were his secular principles dormant during the years of partnership with the BJP? But let’s leave principles aside, for they rarely have any meaning in politics. On the ground, JDU-BJP was a behemoth force to reckon with; from caste mathematics to governance, everything was going in its favour.

That can hardly be said for the "Mahagathbandhan", as nothing seems to be working for them. When Nitish Kumar, the able administrator, joins forces with the two parties most notorious for corruption in India, RJD and Congress, he can kiss the “good-governance” campaign slogan goodbye. To be sure, the caste math looks good on paper, but one also has to counter that with the reality that the Yadav-Kurmi rivalry in UP and Bihar is legendary. Both SP and Pappu Yadav have recognised this opportunity and have declared a candidacy against the Mahagathbandhan, which could split Yadav votes two if not three ways. Admittedly, SP has little or no influence in Bihar, but its reputation as “Yadav leader" in next door UP cannot be written off. Pappu Yadav, a.k.a. Rajiv Ranjan, a local strongman and a five-time parliamentarian, is a force to reckon with at least in some cnostituencies.

Given that the RJD’s Yadav-Muslim combination has yielded good results and both JDU and Congress claim to represent Muslims, one would think the Muslim vote is a sure thing. But here too Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM has emerged as the X factor on how the minority vote will swing. The NCP's breakup with the Mahagathbandhan, which means loss of heavy-weight Tariq Anwar's presence, is another minus factor. This is not to mention the huge loss of the Mahadalit vote that the very disgraceful ouster of Jitan Ram Manjhi will cost the JDU.

So far Nitish Kumar’s campaign promises also fail to awe. The claim of “Crime and Corruption-free Bihar” comes under serious doubt the moment you note that JDU is contesting less seats (100) than they won (117) last time. Even the dying Congress has managed to wrest 10 times more seats (40) than they won in 2010 (four). This indicates the low level of control Nitish Kumar exerts over the coalition. Not too long ago, Nitish Kumar was in the headlines asking for a “Special Status” for Bihar; with Modi delivering a “Special Package” of Rs 1.25 lakh crore, way more than Nitish Kumar even asked for, his election promise of raising a Rs 2.7 lakh crore without the centre’s help seems too reactionary, if not downright impossible.

His PR Team doesn’t seem to be working any wonders either. Following in Modi’s footsteps, Nitish Kumar tried to increase his social media presence by holding an “Ask-Me-Anything (AMA)" session on Twitter, but not only did he receive a weak response, most of his answers circumvented the questions asked. Recently, Nitish Kumar authored an article in The Times of India titled “Bihar’s great leap forward”, which is an unfortunate re-use of a phrase invented by the Communist Party of China to refer to an economic and social campaign that flopped. Overall, Nitish Kumar’s stars just don’t seem to align the right way.

In the grand scheme of things, the only winner appears to be Lalu Prasad Yadav. From a staggering 103 seats in 2000, Lalu’s party had fallen to a meagre 22 in 2010. After his conviction by a CBI Court in 2013, and the humiliating defeat of his wife Rabri Devi in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014 and Pappu Yadav’s separation from the RJD, it almost seemed like the “Lalu era” of Bihar politics was over. Who knew his arch rival would become his knight in shining armor and revive his career? Not only has Lalu managed to gain relevance again, courtesy Nitish Kumar, but he also seems to be positioned best for a revival.

Irrespective of whether the Mahagathbandhan wins or loses, Lalu Yadav seems to be in a win-win situation. Given that his competitor JDU is now his ally, he stands to win more seats than he would’ve alone, despite Pappu Yadav and the SP threat. Moreover, Nitish’s reputation as an able administrator might actually help Lalu in some of the urban and semi-urban seats, especially if the BJP’s candidate is weak. Speculation is rife that Lalu plans to ditch Nitish post election, based on how well he scores, and bag the Opposition chair by re-aligning himself to other Yadavs, especially if the JDU-Cong combination fails to pull its weight. Lalu’s “poison” comment on Nitish’s CM candidacy suggests that these rumours may be more than just that.

It sure promises to be an interesting fight. One wonders if Nitish Kumar has allowed ambition and envy to overcome his political acumen.

(The author is an alumnus of Columbia University)

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Updated Date: Sep 27, 2015 09:22:35 IST