SAMASTIPUR, BIHAR: Two days after the big rally by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Samastipur, going to the polls on Monday October 12, there was barely any traction. The voters had returned to their pockets, back to the local issues, and the intense debate about who finally should and would win even while the media in Patna and New Delhi continued to highlight the select nuggets of questionable information that the PM has been dropping during his Bihar visits.

Bihar has by and large made up its mind who to vote for, and while the leaders are rushing through the constituencies with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in particular, determined to cover all the constituencies in each phase before the polling, the voters are consolidating behind the political party of their choice fast.

In the midst of the excitement the one factor that is constant, and cuts across caste, religious and most importantly political lines is the popularity of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. In the decades of covering elections across the country this writer has never ever come across a sitting Chief Minister who is applauded by the voters as Nitish Kumar is. Very interestingly, while in the Lok Sabha elections the Bihar voter was comparing his popularity to the surge for PM Modi, in these polls there is no comparison whatsoever. Nitish Kumar is far ahead. And explaining this Parichand Rai who is not going to vote for the JD(U) said, “this is not an election about PM Modi, it is a state election and we all have a great deal of respect for Nitishji.”

There was not a single voter one met, in a two day journey across eight parliamentary constituencies with the numerous Vidhan Sabha segments who was critical of Kumar. The upper castes who have consolidated behind the Bharatiya Janata party are as enthusiastic about the chief minister as the Kurmi or the Yadav voter maintaining that he has done a great deal for Bihar, unlike any Chief Minister in the past. Then why are you not voting for him? And the answer is invariably, “we would have but he has joined hands with Lalu Yadav and so he left us with no choice.”

At a village in Kalyanpur we were welcomed by a group of men sitting at a tea shop with, “it is a one way election, it is all one way.” Which way? It’s all going to the maha gatbandhan” was the chorused response. This is the description in Bihar for the Janata Dal(United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress alliance led by Nitish Kumar. Very soon a crowd collected, and over a sweet glass of delicious tea, the voters started arguing amongst each other. Some were vocal about voting for the Lokjanshakti party that was contesting the seat as part of the alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (Ram Vilas Paswan’s nephew is contesting the seat here) and the discussion became heated and very informative. Finally, when neither side gave up one of the RJD supporters, a rather well informed villager stood up and said to the more vocal on the ‘other side’: “okay tell me, has there been development in Bihar or not?” The ‘other side’ shouted out a : “Yes there has”.

“And has not this been done by Nitish Kumar? “Yes” was the affirmative response again. “Well there you are, that’s all I want to hear,” he said and left. The group fell silent and everyone left in a visibly contemplative mood.

This is the consensus from Bihar. And this writer states with full responsibility, after conversations with Bhumiyars and Rajputs across the board, that Kumar is credited by most of the state with development, and is seen as an honest, credible, efficient politician. To the question then why are you not voting for him, answers from these specific castes as well as the Banias varies from, “we think it’s good to have a change to keep the development going” to “ he should not have joined Lalu,” to the occasional, “he has not done enough.” But in a crowd discussion, the BJP supporters very interestingly are defensive and not able to counter the rather passionate voices that are currently speaking out for the Chief Minister.

The forward castes are voting for the BJP, there is little doubt about that. But given the numbers who spoke highly of Nitish Kumar and regretted his alliance with Lalu Yadav made one look very deeply at why exactly had the Chief Minister done this. And not gone alone, without an alliance, to cash in on his popularity, and keep the forward castes with him? And that too after giving 100 seats to the RJD and coping initially with Lalu Yadav’s tantrums. This is a question that one started asking and at the end returned to Patna with new respect for Nitish Kumar’s political sagacity.

As the days have progressed, and the votes in the first round of polling are about to be cast, the answer to the question that confounds many Nitish Kumar supporters is rather clear. And is clearly a thought out, deliberate decision. The reasons can be roughly summed up with:

1. The Chief Minister knew from the Lok Sabha elections last year that the BJP had acquired an appeal for the forward castes in Bihar. And that when push became shove, as it most certainly has in these elections, the Brahmins, Rajputs and others would continue to support the BJP despite their assertions otherwise. In that even if he was able to keep a percentage of these voters with him, a large chunk would be weaned away.

2. He had realised even before Lalu Yadav had, that given the new emerging dynamics, the Yadavs would consolidate behind the RJD leader. And being a transferable vote would shift alliance to his candidates as well, given his own popularity with them. The Bhumiyars and Yadavs do not like to sit on the same side of the fence, and this very visible in these state polls.

3. Nitish Kumar also decided to go back to the old vote banks, seeing these as less fickle, more solid, and more in tune with his policies.

The chief minister, like all others these days, is out in the constituency from the morning till late evening. And as he said, he barely has the time to counter charges made by the opponents. However, he took time off on Saturday evening to address a press conference at the party headquarters in Patna to counter what he repeatedly referred to as Prime Minister Modi’s “hit and run” methods.

He countered many of the claims made by the Prime Minister in his election speeches with facts and figures, pointing out that all the charges he was making against Bihar were completely wrong. Kumar quoted Goebbels of Hitlers coterie as saying that if a lie was repeated several times it became the truth, to lambast PM Modi’s accusations against the Bihar government, and as the chief minister insisted, against the people of Bihar.

What works for CM Nitish Kumar then? Again based on extensive conversations with the voters in the villages these are the reasons that come up:

1. He follows up on what he says, and has built roads, provided electricity, and done great work for the development of the state;

2. He is honest, and sober. He can be trusted, and is the best chief minister the state has ever seen;

He has stayed out of caste and identity politics, and yet spoken out for the underprivileged when required.

3. He has improved law and order; he has also brought in peace and harmony to a greater extent than ever before between castes and communities;

4. He stands for himself, and does not complicate his politics with a family and relatives. 44

5. The voter of Bihar is canny, intelligent and discerning and shared insights in shops, at tea dhabas, on the road, with The Citizen that would have put many a politician to shame.

So for whom will the dice roll?

Watch this space for possibilities.

(Tomorrow: PM Modi and the BJP in Bihar)