JEHANABAD: One of the mega meetings Prime Minister Narendra Modi was held in Samastipur, that is going to the polls today. At a village tea shop a group of men had gathered to discuss---yes you guessed it---the elections, that is really the only topic of conversation these days in this highly politicised state of Bihar.

Asked if they attended the Prime Ministers’ rally a few days ago, some in the group nodded assent. And what was it like? Did you agree with him? A pause and then a middle aged farmer spoke while the rest laughed, “he asked “bijli milli”(have you got electricity) and the crowd in the middle said, “haan milli”(yes we have). Everyone standing around laughed loudly. Encouraged he went on , “and then the PM asked, sadak (roads) milli” and they shouted back “haan milli.” By then everyone was laughing loudly, even the few who said they would be voting for the BJP.

One does get an impression, moving through the districts of Bihar, stopping at random spots to speak with the very vocal voters, that PM Modi has peaked. And actually peaked during the Lok Sabha elections last year with the many promises he made. The one that caught the fancy of most farmers in the villages, including the youth, was of opening accounts. Gajendra Rai sitting with two others in a shop outside Samastipur said, “well I sold my goat to open an account but its lying there, empty.” A younger man sitting beside him Mukesh, nodded assent muttering,”all false promises. He is not going to do anything for Bihar.”

It is Nitish Kumar versus Narendra Modi, exactly the way the BJP seemed to want it. Voters north and south of Patna were all agreed that it is a fight between the maha gathbandan ( JD(U)-RJD-Congress grand alliance) and the BJP led alliance. But in the personal comparison between the Chief Minister and the Prime Minister, the scales are clearly tipping in favour of the former.

PM Modi’s charisma does not seem to be working in the villages of Bihar this time around, except for the forward castes who have aligned themselves with the BJP. But here too many were defensive about the choice, when confronted by other villages about Nitish Kumar’s quality of work. “Well if the BJP does not deliver we will throw them out next election,” several Rajput and Brahmin voters said in different villages across the state. There was no assertive, “PM Modi has said it, they will deliver” kind of sentiment that was visible in the Lok Sabha elections. Instead the response was a bit defensive with many saying they would have “100 per cent” voted for Nitish Kumar had he not aligned with Lalu Yadav who the forward castes openly dislike. This incidentally, is also one of the reasons why the Yadav is rallying behind the grand alliance, as the old enmity with the Bhumiyars is leading to a polarisation of its own volition.

This writer was surprised at the level of criticism of PM Modi in the villages, as against the adulation that was sensed by many while covering the general elections. The highly political Bihari villager does not appear to be particularly impressed with the Prime Minister, regardless of caste and community. Interestingly, the Bihari pride argument that the Janata Dal(U) and Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders have worked on extensively during the campaign seems to have worked to a greater extent than this reporter had anticipated.

Any number of villagers spoke angrily of the PMs references to ‘jungle raj’ in Bihar maintaining that in the last ten years there had been a huge improvement during Nitish Kumar’s tenure. In fact in almost every little town, crossing, village the elders would remind one of the fact that “you could not travel here after 4pm before, but now you can go anywhere without any problem.” Driving down in the old Naxal belt towards Jehanabad, the driver said that there was no way he would have used the road before. “But now,you can see there is no problem, it is all so peaceful,” he said. Neeraj, a forward caste, was not happy with the PM’s references and shared the view of the villagers when they said that the Prime Minister should first look at the law and order in Gujarat and in Delhi before “speaking about us.”

PM Modi’s language is also not going down well with the people, and has made even his supporters defensive. “Yeh gaali galauch accha nahin hai (this abuse and accusations are not good), these do not suit the Prime Minister,” is a view expressed by many.

Some assertive RJD supporters clearly angry with the attack on Lalu Yadav said, “he (PM) knows nothing about Bihar, he made promises he has not kept, and he is campaigning here now like an ordinary MLA.”The last in fact, was mentioned by many across the districts.

The BJP has placed all its bets on PM Modi, but there is a level of criticism that has crept into the narrative concerning him. In Samastipur a day before the elections this criticism was highly vocal. In Jehanabad five days before the polling, it was even more vocal. The urban-rural divide seems to be missing with many in the little township here insisting that the voters in this constituency at least had made up their minds already. PM Modi is scheduled to hold a rally here but the consensus seemed to be, “this is not going to make a difference.”

The grand alliance has run an extremely effective and judging from the responses a rather convincing campaign that has one, attacked the PM for not keeping his promises; two, for insulting the Biharis with his references to jungle raj etc; three, for being a rank outsider trying to control Bihar. This came as a surprise really, as this reporter was totally unprepared for this level of criticism against PM Modi. It could not be ascertained whether the BJP itself was aware of this thinly disguised strain of criticism running through rural Bihar in particular.

The one issue that the voters agreed with the BJP was its decision not to announce a chief ministerial candidate. The highly political voter of Bihar was clear that if the BJP had announced a candidate from within one of the many in the fray it would have lost the elections. One, because this would have created dissensions within; and two, there is no leader in the BJP currently who can stand up to the popularity of Nitish Kumar. So much so that even PM Modi is finding it difficult to wean away the voter from the amazingly popular chief minister in this highly local election.

The BJP is counting on the 16 per cent or so upper castes who are largely supportive. It has been working through the allies to cut the Dalit and Mahadalit vote, and get the support of the extremely backward segments. The success, or otherwise, of the BJP candidates to effect this split could make the difference between defeat and victory. And this is not easy to judge, although it is certain that these voter segments are in some turmoil and uncertain of whom to support in the final analysis. To what extent the pro-BJP vote in these sections outweigh the heavy Yadav-Kurmi-Muslim consolidation that is taking place in Bihar remains to be seen.

Interestingly, the BJP has failed completely ---at least as JD(U)’s Pavan Varma said “till now”---to communalise the environment. The beef controversy is more or less limited to Patna, with only confirmed BJP supporters from the upper castes referring to it in the districts. In fact several Rajputs were clear that this was barely an issue, and had not influenced their decision to vote for the BJP. The media in Patna conversely seemed to be preoccupied with this non-issue with at least four questions at a Nitish Kumar press conference seeking to raise this but with little success.

In the villages, news has spread of the money being used by the BJP to control the media and the campaign, with several villagers at different points asking The Citizen team whether their travel was being funded by the BJP. This has had a reverse impact, in that the villagers seem to have become more protective of the Chief Minister, and perhaps it is a first in decades of covering elections for this reporter to find ordinary voters exaggerating the accomplishments of the state government in a bid to convince the outsiders questioning them that they were “very happy” with their own man from Bihar in the saddle.

(Tomorrow: the Muslim vote)