Network18 journalists on ground – Will Bihar decide future course of national politics?

The results of the Bihar Assembly elections will be declared on Sunday. It is being seen as a direct fight between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar–Lalu Yadav combine. If the BJP-led NDA fails to come to power in Bihar, Modi’s leadership might take a big hit. If the NDA wins Bihar, Modi will become stronger and can silence all his critics. A win for Nitish–Lalu combine can encourage regional parties all over India to take the BJP head on in the days to come.

Some senior journalists from CNN-IBN/IBNLIVE have travelled across Bihar in the last two months. They have sent their views or takes on the poll.

Some senior journalists from CNN-IBN/IBNLIVE have travelled across Bihar in the last two months.

Bhupendra Chaubey, Executive Editor, CNN-IBN, on the road between Madhepura and Darbhanga

 

As I travel from Darbhanga to Madhepura on edges of north bihar, the one image I constantly come across is of mobile network providers. Each providing better packages than the other. However the truth is that even on NH 57, connectivity is anything but good. As I stop by for a cup of tea at a road side dhaba, the conversation inevitably veers around to who is ahead in this poll. Like most informed Bihari citizens, the dhaba owner, Prakash, refuses to tell me who his preferred choice is. But he does make it a point to express his total disappointment with the campaign. “What did this election start off with and look where it’s ending?” I ask him. He replies, “It just shows that the fault ultimately lies with us citizens. We get governments that we deserve. If in our daily lives, we allow religion or caste to be a dividing factor, politicians are bound to reap in the benefits.”

Wise and profound words. But also factual words. This election, at the end of the day, has become a straightforward caste battle. Development be damned. Whether it’s Nitish-led secular alliance or the BJP, both sides are at each other’s throat. Each trying to consolidate their own caste blocs. Speak to any BJP leader here and they will quickly dish out the caste numbers for you – how many Dalits, how many Mahadalits, how many EBCs are voting for us. They ask you!

Speak to Nitish Kumar’s team, you will get a similar response. So while both Modi and Nitish are trying to position themselves as agents of change, the truth is that they are both also playing the caste game. This is not to suggest that a society as feudal as Bihar’s would overnight have turned away from caste, but the assiduous nature of cultivating caste blocks as vote banks does make one wonder whether we have gone back in time.

It’s on this barometer that this election needs to be judged. Purely on caste terms, Nitish and Lalu yadav certainly seem to have an edge. Does that mean that the BJP is out? Not really. Party leaders have consistently maintained that between the third and fourth phases, this election has turned. But then are we to understand that the first two phases went to Nitish Kumar, the next two to BJP and the last one conventionally speaking, probably may have an edge again for Nitish?

Elections in India are increasingly becoming a “winner takes all” kind of election. Start looking at Mayawati from 2008 in UP. A state which had become a nightmare for coalitions was the first one to really break away from a coalition nature. In 2009, Congress party got 206 seats again due to a desire of moving away from a coalition. In 2012, Akhilesh Yadav reaped a huge harvest in UP. Ditto for Mamata in Bengal. Can that change in Bihar?

My take: Don’t think so. Either ways, it’s going to be a decisive verdict. But a verdict which may not necessarily take the state into future. Remember, I am still on a national highway with poor connectivity.

Marya Shakil, Senior Associate Editor/Anchor, CNN-IBN

 

Bihar is a complex state. The Bihari voter is shrewd, politically agile, cautious, anecdotal and reticent. Having travelled across the state for the last 3 months, I feel Bihar speaks in pockets and its regions or belts compete with each other in thoughts.

So, in Magadh belt of Jehanabad, Aurangabad and Gaya – the narrative is that there is no single leader of Dalits in Bihar, they have competing hierarchies and competing loyalties. Former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi does have sympathisers but often the residents of his own constituency of Makhdumpur ask what is Manjhi without the JDU? But move away from the Magadh belt to Nitish Kumar’s home district of Nalanda, Dalits here see Manjhi as a victim and Nitish as his tormentor. It’s this Dalit vote bank which will be the X-factor to watch out for on 8th November.

Similarly, the womaniya of Bihar. They have outnumbered men in 4 phases that have gone to polls so far. In the last ten years Nitish Kumar has tried to carve out women as a caste neutral constituency, even announcing that if re-elected he will ensure a ban on liquor in the state. Women in Bihar aren’t comfortable with the idea of Nitish Kumar aligning with Lalu Prasad Yadav. The BJP too is harping on that factor often reminding women of the dark days of Lalu’s regime – raising issues of security.

But there are many who counter that charge vehemently by saying that if Lalu was such a nuisance then they should have created troubles for Nitish during his 10 year regime. Often highlighting that Nitish is his own man and won’t let anyone dictate him.

Similarly, when you speak to a young Bihari in the age group of 18-40, which form 56 percent of Bihar’s 6.6 crore voters, in some regions they give an indication that they have risen above caste and will vote for jobs and education often citing the migration rate and unemployment in the state but the narrative later changes to caste being the only mathematics that a Bihari irrespective of his age understands.

Traditionally Bihar isn’t a state that has voted out an incumbent for the sake of change, it’s been mostly on issues of non-performance. November 8 will suggest just how far the women and the youth of the state have travelled.

Sumit Pande, Political Editor, CNN-IBN

 

Apart from other things, politics – both electoral and otherwise – is about managing contradictions.

And this election in Bihar has hinged on two paradoxes: the symbolic contradiction of a serpent wrapped around a sandalwood tree, quite analogous to the JD(U) and RJD tie-up which was so aptly articulated by Nitish Kumar himself; and secondly, NDA seeking votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a state Assembly polls – a gambit which paid off for the BJP in three Assembly elections last year.

The success and failure at the hustings in Bihar would be determined by the ability of the two competing alliances to bridge these contradictions in the narrative that they have spun around the campaign.

Let us first look at the dilemma Nitish Kumar as the leader of Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) faced before the first ballot was cast. He wanted Lalu Yadav’s votes but not the legacy – 15 years of RJD rule. This was precisely the chink in the armour which BJP had set out to exploit. In rally after rally, BJP leadership underscored apprehensions of the return of the “jungle raj” if Nitish-Lalu-Congress were to win power.

In the face of this narrative for the Bihar CM, who is often credited with the turnaround in the law-and-order situation during his tenure, the challenge was to convince the electorate that the clock cannot be turned back on Bihar. Lalu’s conviction in fodder scam rendering him in-eligible to contest elections was an undertone used to assuage these fears.

The CM versus PM discourse in Bihar on the other hand has followed a trajectory conspicuously similar to what happened in Delhi in February. Except for the fact that BJP was lured to announce a CM candidate in the national capital, its election managers this time around have not fallen for the trap. BJP has kept all CM contenders interested, in the process mitigating chances of counter reaction from rejected candidates or a caste group.

But this please-all strategy has its pitfalls. The problem arises when a strong regional satrap attempts to exploit this lacunae with powerful counter argument.

No wonder Nitish Kumar has repeatedly over the long drawn campaign took pot-shots at the BJP for failing to name its CM campaign. The “bahari vs bihari” jibe at Modi also underscores this point. Nitish Kumar’s task during Bihar polls was cut out: convince people that this is an election to elect the CM of the state and not the prime minister of the country.

Mahagathbandhan’s unambiguous projection of Kumar and its attempts at OBC consolidation post RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s comments on reservations have perhaps completed this ensemble.

Prabhakar Kumar, CNN-IBN Bureau Chief, Patna

 

Finally, it’s getting over, almost over now. And today, when I look back at two months of maddening electioneering, I find that the worst victims of Bihar election has been the national television audience, who, whether they wanted or not, got the overdose of Bihar politics.

But for me, as a reporter, it was highly enriching and entertaining. A great learning ground, I’d say. Learning especially in terms of understanding people’s physic. Learning as to how the last voter standing in the queue looks at these top notch political leaders, how he takes those inflammatory speeches, they happily and deliberately make in front of television camera? Whether it actually affects him or not?

Learning I got was never by meeting these big political stalwarts in Patna but meeting the last man standing the voter, around whom, the entire campaign was built. So, on the polling day, my target would be to talk to as many voters as I could; talk to people from all cross sections, all religion, all caste, so that by the time the polling ends, you have a picture drawn in your head, have a fair idea as to which way the wind is blowing, understand the voting patterns of various castes & creeds, get a feel as to how really the ugly political sound bites being played at Patna is affecting the minds of voters on the ground.

November 8 will soon be here. While the one camp will be celebrating Diwali, for the other, it will be dark. But when I as a reporter, look back at the 2 months of electioneering, I see Bihar election going down in history for 3 reasons.

For the first time in the election history of India, the political discourse went so low. Bihar election saw many such lows this time – lows in terms of personal attack against each other, lows in terms of lack of respect for political opponents, lows also regarding hitting below the belt, dragging family members to score brownie points-the list is really long & sad.

Secondly, it also became an election where, for the first time, Prime minister of the country beat the local BJP leaders, in terms of holding number of public rallies. Virtually, for last 2 months, I saw government of India, operating out of Patna’s Maurya hotel.

Thirdly, this became an election where everything except the development & welfare of the state was an election issue. Be it the Dadri incident, caste reservation or the beef controversy, it was all debated inside the TV studios, on the streets & in the political meetings by all factions, without exception. Unfortunately, no one-not even the media-bothered to look at the chronic development issues of this BIMARU state.

But above these 3 highlights, the one incident which I see as the defining moment of 2015 Bihar election was that famous reservation statement made by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. If it all, the results don’t go the BJP way on November 8, they clearly know who to blame for this.

Priyarag Verma, Editor, IBNLive

It has been touted an election which will change Bihar for the better. Several weeks before the election schedule was announced, Patna had already been plastered with huge posters of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and that set the tone and tenor of the tough battle ahead.

Bihar Assembly elections 2015 have been fought around Brand Nitish Kumar. The voter is either with him or against him. From the western Bihar constituency of Dumraon to the urban seat of Digha in Patna to Manjhi and Baniapur in Saran and then Kochadhaman and Jokihat in the Seemanchal belt of northeastern part of the state, the common factor has been Nitish. He is praised by almost every voter, but his political path in the last couple of years comes under severe criticism from some.

The opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) placed its faith in the star power of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but for the Mahagathbandhan it was all about Nitish.

Even as parties talked about development in front of the media, the fight was all about getting the caste and community combination right on the ground. Both the main rivals tried to peddle their development agenda cloaked the caste blanket.

In villages after villages the dominant castes were wooed brazenly and asked to “manage” the lower castes and Dalits on the voting day.

Better roads, improved electricity supply, better law and order, cycles especially for girls in high school were some Nitish Kumar’s achievements which the Mahagathbandhan tried to play up. On the other hand, the NDA boasted of the development package of Rs 1.65 crore announced by Modi and a better synergy between the Centre and state if the same alliance ruled at both the places.

Beyond that, the political discourse was of the worst kind possible with all attempts being made to polarize the voter along the caste and community lines. Sadly this also involved the Prime Minister. All kinds of abusive language flowed freely forcing the Election Commission to intervene on more than one occasion and warn leaders.

Yet, as a retired college professor Shashidhar Jha pointed to me in Katihar how even in the so called developed states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Punjab, too, politics is majorly about caste.

But the best part was about the enthusiasm among the youngsters and women. The latter have already outvoted men in percentage terms in all the four rounds and the fifth is unlikely to be any different. Jha also asked me: “In how many states other than Bihar do you see this?”

Shobhit Sujay, Deputy Editor, IBNLive

 

The battle for Bihar is confined to two faces, Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar, on the national stage. But on the ground, one can’t dismiss the impact of Bihar strongman Lalu Prasad Yadav. Lalu, once the undisputed leader of the state’s polity, is impacting the polls this time probably like never before.

In most of the urban areas, people feel that Nitish committed a big mistake by going for an alliance with the RJD chief. Pointing that the Bihar CM had enough development work to back him had he gone alone, most of the voters fear that crime may make a comeback if Lalu gets a stake in the government.

But going further inside Bihar, in the rural/remote areas, one understands why Nitish took the Lalu gamble. Lalu’s ‘jungle raj’, as claimed by the rival NDA, does not really matter for the voters, who mostly hail from the backward castes. It is widely believed that it was under Lalu regime that the backwards got their voice, hence, the caste factor here is working for the Mahagathbandhan, but primarily only in the rural regions.

Another factor impacting this election is the rebel factor. In several regions, the ticket distribution has not gone down well within the parties. For instance in Bhagalpur, a BJP stronghold traditionally, the party has fielded strongman Ashwini Chaubey’s son Arijit Shashwat, but his chances are marred because of Vijay Shah, a BJP rebel who has contested the polls as an independent.

Apart from this, marathon rallies by the top leaders is another factor swaying the results on the ground. PM Modi and former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi have emerged as the biggest crowd pullers, certainly attracting more eyeballs than the Mahagathbandhan leaders. But it’s tough to say if that turnout will transform into votes, as those favouring the other side feel that the “PM is forced to go from door to door to seek votes because he has no other choice”.

In this election of ‘jumla’, DNA and ‘jungle raj’, the political rhetoric has certainly grabbed the headlines, but the battle has on the ground thrived on two factors mostly – caste and development.

Bihar is probably the state with the most articulate political knowledge, induced with the practice of voting in herds.

Alok Kumar, Executive Editor, News18

 

The day I landed in Patna, I visited BJP, RJD and JDU offices. Before that I made a visit to Danapur and Diara areas of Patna. It was evident that the Grand Alliance was sailing ahead in the just concluded two phases of polls and Mohan Bhagwat had done the damage for the NDA. Even journalists admitted that Lalu Prasad Yadav has set the agenda of ‘Backward vs Forward’ and remaining phases too would be polled on that line.

But it is a common saying in Bihar that mood changes overnight. I visited Nitish stronghold Nalanda and spent two days in his ancestral village, Harnaut, Bihar Sharif and Rajgir. It was enough to get the sense that this election is going to be a nightmare for pollsters. Between the second and the third phase, the NDA, particularly the BJP, went all out to discard any fear on reservation and PM Modi snatched the agenda by accusing the Grand Alliance of conspiring to dilute reservation meant for OBC and Dalits. By then, even Lalu stopped mentioning the issue. In a calculated move, the NDA mobilised non Yadav-Kurmi OBCs in its fold and it was visible when I revisited those areas.

I failed to find any wave or undercurrent as issues and moods of voters changed every 2 km. Supporters of Grand Alliance were vocal in Bihar Sharif, Harnaut, Hilsa, Fatuha, Bakhtiyarpur but saw quite a reversal in East and West Champaran. There was a pitched battle in Tirhut – Muzaffarpur, Vaishali, Shivhar and Sitamarhi.

But on three points, the pattern was same from Motihari to Rajgir. First, Almost everyone praised Nitish and accepted that he brought development but a very few of them approved of his alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav and claimed that the former would have performed better alone in the elections. Second, voters were in mood to disapprove dynasty politics. That’s why both the sons of Lalu and son-in-law of Ram Vilas Paswan could not be said to be safe. And third, Modi still rules the heart of educated youth.

Caste is still the most dominant factor but not as per Lalu Yadav’s social engineering. Split in OBCs and Dalit votes brought back smiles on the faces of NDA leaders after the third and the fourth phase of polls. One can say that the five-match series is now poised at 2-2 and the winner will be decided in the fifth polls.

[“source-ibnlive”]