Battle for Bihar: What’s behind BJP’s confidence?

As the battle to claim Bihar heats up, the gloves are certainly off. The BJP aims to keep its winning streak alive, facing off against a united front of parties seeking to counter the saffron juggernaut on the election battlefield. For voters, it is a clear Modi vs Nitish battle. Nitish Kumar is trying to retain power in the state after the voters gave him a clear thumbs down in the Lok Sabha elections, and he had a bitter turf war with former Bihar CM Jitan Ram Manjhi. The election also sees the re-entry of Lalu Prasad Yadav–the RJD supremo and fodder scam convict attempts to re-test his political mettle. For the Modi-Amit Shah combine, a victory seems essential to boost the morale of the supporters after the monsoon session washout–the might of the BJP’s numbers in Parliament was brought to its knees by the Opposition.
The BJP is confident of victory, so says party spokesperson Devesh Kumar. After spending 20 years as a political journalist working for organisations like the Indian Express, the Economic Times, India Today, Mail Today and NDTV, Devesh Kumar has stepped into the election battlefield. Over the past many weeks, Devesh has travelled the length and breadth of Bihar, holding many meetings in towns and villages to gauge the mood of the public. Privy to the ups and downs of Indian politics, he is confident that the BJP will sweep the state using Prime Minister Modi’s signature development narrative. I sat with him for a chat about the BJP’s election strategy and the tussle between the different parties at the ground level.
Q1: Is the RJD’s tie-up with the JD(U) your prime target when taking on the anti-NDA alliance in Bihar? If not, in which areas are you targeting the Bihar government?
Devesh Kumar: Highlighting the political opportunism behind the JD(U)’s tie up with the RJD, is only part of our overall campaign. We seek the mandate to boost development in Bihar. The BJP is the best option for the state as the JD(U) and the RJD are responsible for 25 years of misgovernance–which is 15 years of ‘jungle raj’ under Lalu Prasad Yadav and 10 years under Nitish Kumar.
When we were allied with the JD(U), the state prospered and was developing in all sectors. But ever since the JD(U) snapped ties with the BJP, growth in the state has plummeted. Law and order has deteriorated as there has been a rise in cases of rape, murders and kidnappings across the state. The JD(U) also insulted the Mahadalit community after it sacked Jitan Ram Manjhi from the post of Bihar CM, just 11 months after he took office. Manjhi’s crime was that he sought to function independently as Chief Minister, but Nitish Kumar wanted a puppet CM.
This was followed by a bitter turf war in which Manjhi was humiliated, and the Mahadalit community has not taken it well. On the JD(U)-RJD alliance, we really don’t need to do much. Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav have allied after years of enmity, but the people of Bihar are not fools. Nitish Kumar clearly does not mind sharing stage with someone convicted of corruption. At the Swabhimaan rally, Lalu Yadav’s speech once again played the political game of the backward class vs the forward class, but the voters won’t fall for it. They are angry, and are waiting for the opportunity to vote the JD(U) and RJD out of power and welcome the BJP.
Q2: How can the BJP distance itself from the current Bihar government as it was an alliance partner till 2013? Is your focus on the situation of Bihar after the JD(U) snapped ties with the NDA?
Devesh Kumar: Let’s be clear, Nitish dumped us. We didn’t dump him. There was no development in Bihar till 2005, but things turned around after the BJP-JD(U) government came to power. BJP ministers in the coalition government were the best performers. There was a significant boost in multiple sectors namely transport and health. Numerous roads and highways were constructed connecting the far-flung regions of the state. Citizens had better access to healthcare as the medical infrastructure in the state was significantly expanded. Ever since JD(U) snapped ties with the BJP in 2013, all the growth indices have come down. The Bihar growth story has come to a grinding halt. The voters are aware of that and hold Nitish Kumar responsible.
modi biharQ3: Bihar is famous for being a lab for caste politics. Is that being factored into the BJP’s campaign strategy?
Devesh Kumar: Our focus is only one thing – Development, Development, Development. First time voters in Bihar, the youth of Bihar, are not interested in caste. They are interested in jobs, livelihoods, better education and civic amenities. During my travels across Bihar, I visited many villages, and no matter where you go, despite the caste makeup of a place, people are mainly interested to know how political parties and governments can improve their lives and surroundings. It is evident at the ground level that caste loyalties are getting blurred, and citizens believe that the BJP is their best bet to boost growth in the state.
Q4: Nitish Kumar recently attacked the PM for insulting Biharis. How effective is Nitish Kumar’s positioning as a ‘protector’ of the Bihari people? What traction is it achieving on the ground?
Devesh Kumar:  The late Congress President Dev Kanta Barooah once said that Indira Gandhi is India and India is Indira Gandhi. The voters rebuffed him when Congress lost the 1977 elections and the Janata party came to power. Nitish Kumar is equating himself with Bihari pride, but it won’t work as he’s trying this tactic after almost 2 years of misgovernance in the state. Nitish Kumar once had the image of being a great performer as Bihar Chief Minister, but after he dumped the BJP, the voters moved away from him and more than one election has proven it. We swept the Lok Sabha polls in Bihar where the JD(U) won only 2 seats and we also won the recent MLC polls in the state.
Nitish Kumar himself is not confident about his chances, otherwise why would he create such a rag-tag alliance? He is in fact leaning on Lalu Yadav to shore up support for the assembly elections. Consider the recent Swabhimaan rally. The crowd puller is always the last speaker, as seen in all the rallies where PM Modi has spoken. At the Swabhimaan rally, it was Lalu Yadav who was the last speaker after Nitish Kumar and Sonia Gandhi. Nitish Kumar knew that if Lalu Yadav would have spoken first, people would have left the rally after he finished.
He is clearly not in control of the alliance, it is Lalu Yadav who is in the driver’s seat. Consider the campaigns Nitish Kumar started to galvanise support and counter the BJP. His ‘Har Ghar Dastak’, ‘Parcha Pe Charcha’ and the ambitious ‘Shabd Wapsi’ campaigns have all bombed. They were started and now no one, even the media does not talk about them.
Q5: Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav have formed an alliance after being enemies for many years, and their parties will contest 100 seats each in the elections. Does the public believe they have buried the hatchet?
Devesh Kumar: Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav may have buried the hatchet, but not their supporters. The alliance is very young and has been formed after a rivalry spanning many years. On the ground, JD(U) and RJD supporters are at loggerheads. They are finding it difficult to work with each other, and coordinate their campaigning. Such unions need time to sink their roots into the ground level. JD(U) & RJD won’t be able to resolve their differences and fix the problems in their alliance in time for the elections.
sonia-rahulQ6: You have been in the field for several weeks – and the Congress is now set to contest 40 seats in the elections. What is the activity from their side so far?
Devesh Kumar: I don’t understand what the Congress thinks it can gain by contesting in the Bihar state elections. They have almost no support or presence in the state. In the Lok Sabha polls in Bihar, Congress won only one seat, while in the 2010 state elections they won only 4 seats. God only knows what Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav were thinking allocating 40 seats to the Congress. We also welcome Rahul Gandhi to come and campaign in the state. His presence on the election battlefield will only add to our tally.
Q7: The Congress continues to claim the nation has moved away from the BJP, highlighting the debacle in Delhi. Is a win in Bihar essential to silence them and energise the party cadre across the nation?
Devesh Kumar: Congress has no locus standi to question us on our support base. We may have lost in the Delhi elections, but how many seats did the Congress win in Delhi? Winning no seats should be an embarrassment for India’s oldest political party. They rule the state of Karnataka, but lost the Bengaluru civic polls to us. Our party cadre is energetic. Even after our loss in Delhi, we have won multiple civic body polls in different states including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Assam, not to mention the recent MLC polls in Bihar. The writing on the wall is very clear. The BJP is going to win the Bihar state elections, and fulfil its promise to boost development and help the state and its people prosper.

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