Nitish Kumar’s USP in Bihar so far was good governance. So much so that he came to be called the sushasan babu. And this was his claim to fame.

With good governance, he combined the substantial non-Yadav OBC ( especially his caste kin Kurmi-Koeri vote), mahadalit and a section of Muslim vote bank and ruled over Bihar for more than a decade. It was a compulsion for the BJP to carry him along when they wanted to dislodge Laloo Pasad Yadav in 2005.

In 2010, the BJP had no option but to ride piggyback on him once again to keep Laloo Yadav out of reckoning.

In 2015, the picture changed. Owing to his bloated ego, Nitish Kumar bolted out of the NDA and joined hands with Laloo Yadav for the 2015 assembly election. Though Laloo Yadav was out of electoral politics by then, still his Rashtriya Janata Dal won more seats than Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal(United). But Laloo Yadav still honoured his promise and made Nitish Kumar the chief minister.

Kumar, however, changed colours again and deserted the RJD to rejoin the NDA stable in 2017. But this time, his tenure has been marked more by his ego trips, arrogance and complete lack of governance.

The pictures of a waterlogged Patna last year, when flood waters entered houses even in so-called posh localities like Rajendra Nagar, Kankarbagh and Patliputra colony, and remained there for days on, are fresh in people’s minds. Garbage floating around everywhere, carcasses seen floating on roads, hapless people forced to spend days on the rooftops without food or water for days, the horror stories abound.

It took almost 10-15 days for the Patna municipal corporation to pump the water out and restore some normalcy in Patna. Reason: out of 29 pumps, 28 were out of order and the sewerage system was so choked that there simply was no outlet for the flood waters to recede. Even after that, it is a common sight in Patna to find mounds of garbage in all conceivable empty spaces all over the city, with pigs rummaging through them and dogs making merry with the rubbish.

No wonder Patna has been declared the dirtiest city in the country among the large cities as per the central government’s cleanliness audit in August this year. Bihar has the ignominy of occupying this slot among small cities as well. Gaya has been declared the dirtiest city among small cities. Gaya, interestingly, is a city which gets substantial international travelers who visit Bodhgaya and Nalanda all through the year.

When the Covid pandemic hit India and the lockdown began, the most haunting picture remains that of a sea of poor people, walking or cycling in the scorching summer heat from all big cities in India towards Bihar. Biharis made the bulk of migrants trudging back home or pushing and shoving in whatever mode of transport was available as there were no jobs, no place to stay and no food to eat for them. Going back home, in whichever way it was possible for them, was the only option for them. Fear of Corona could not hold them because the fear of dying from hunger was a certainty.

Once the government allowed some movement and shramik special trains started running, people saw Nitish Kumar refusing to get the Biharis back home. He even initially refused to get those children back home who were stuck in Kota coaching institutes. Then images emerged of poor people fleeing from quarantine centres in Bihar because of horrible conditions there: lack of food, unhygienic living spaces, no medical help etc.

Now when the Bihar elections are now going to be held in this backdrop, it is no surprise that people have started clamoring for change. Sensing the people’s mood, the BJP, which cannot afford to still go it alone, has found a clever ploy in the form of Lok Janshakti Party, whose leader, Chirag Paswan, after many deliberations with Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP president J P Nadda, announced his party’s divorce from the NDA, saying he would contest the election against JD(U) in Bihar.

Chirag Paswan, who has decided to contest 143 seats, has been consistently maintaining that he would not field candidates against the BJP though. Swearing his allegiance to the BJP, Paswan has declared that he would work to prop up a BJP-LJP government in Bihar. His slogan to this effect is “ BJP se bair nahi, Nitish teri khair nahi.” ( no enmity with the BJP, but would not spare Nitish Kumar.)

His posture has made tongues wag in Patna that he has been propped up by the BJP to cut Nitish Kumar to size. According to political observers, “Modi and Shah are not people who would easily forget an insult. They have not forgotten that it was Nitish Kumar who had refused to accept Narendra Modi’s leadership in 2014. So far they had no option because Nitish Kumar’s kurmi-koeri-and mahadalit vote base was required to form a government in Bihar . It was their political compulsion to tolerate his inflated ego and arrogance. Now with a huge anti-incumbency wave against Nitish Kumar, the BJP has got its chance to get even with him and the LJP has become their prop to this end,” said a senior journalist in Patna.

This impression gains substance because the LJP, which does not have too big a cadre base of its own, has invited those BJP leaders who have been denied the ticket by their own party. There are at least 10 such seats where hardcore RSS-BJP leaders have been given tickets by the LJP as they could not get ticket in their own party, either because of the seat sharing formula or any other reason. Some of the notable names in this context are Rajendra Singh, Usha Vidyarthi, Rameshwar Chaurasia, Mrinal Shekhar and Ravinder Yadav, all of them prominent BJP leaders, now in the fray as LJP candidates.

Rajendra Singh’s case is the most striking one because he has been a RSS member all his life and was the BJP candidate in 2015 from the Dinara assembly segment in Bihar, which has now gone to the JD(U). He has switched to LJP and is contesting against JD(U)’s Jaikumar Singh. “ All those BJP supporters, who are harbouring a grudge against Nitish Kumar and want him out, would vote for Rajendra Singh. Anyone who wants to see a BJP government, has now a choice to vote for the LJP candidates,” a senior LJP leader in Patna said.

Rameshwar Chaurasia is yet another prominent BJP name who is now contesting as the LJP candidate from Sasaram against the JD(U). Similarly, Usha Vidyarthi from Paliganj, Mrinal shekhar from Amarpur assembly segment in Bhagalpur, and Ravinder Yadav from Jhajha, are prominent BJP leaders, now in the fray as LJP candidates.

According to political observers, Chirag Paswan may or may not have a pan Bihar base as yet, but his message that voting for his party would pave the way for a BJP-led government in Bihar, has now gone down to the BJP voters across the state, including those from the upper castes. This election is BJP’s big opportunity to unseat Nitish Kumar and install a government with or without his support.

Another interesting factor to note here is that BJP, which mainly has urban seats, does not have too much competition, but the JD(U), which has more seats in rural areas, will have an additional competition from LJP, besides that of the mahagathbandhan allies. It is a matter of record that the JD(U)’s strike rate is lower than its alliance partners.

In 2010, when the JD(U) and BJP had contested together, the BJP had won 91 seats, with a 89.2 percent strike rate while JD (U), which had won 115 seats, had a strike rate of 81.6 percent. In 2015, however, when the JD(U) had contested the election with RJD, its strike rate was 70.3 percent, with 71 seats, while the RJD’s strike rate was 79.2 percent with 81 seats. Both the parties had then contested an equal number of seats, 101 each.

Now if a similar scenario is repeated, since both the BJP and JD(U) are contesting almost equal number of seats, 121 and 122 respectively, the JD(U) would definitely end up with fewer seats than the BJP and even if the two continue to be together in the government, the BJP would enjoy a prominent status unlike now when Nitish Kumar behaves like the primadonna.

It was the possibility of this scenario which had resulted into a big fracas between the two alliance partners on October 6, 2020 when the press conference to announce the seat sharing formula was to be held. According to BJP insiders, an upset Nitish Kumar had thrown a fit and refused to come for the press conference, unless it was publicly announced that he would only be the chief minister irrespective of the number of seats each party won. According to sources, senior BJP leaders Bhupendra Yadav and Devendra Phadnavis, had both given him a piece of their mind.

The situation could be saved only after the state BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal, went to great lengths to first announce in the press conference that Nitish Kumar was the NDA’s chief ministerial candidate, irrespective of post-poll figures.

But the fact remains that even though the BJP had fared poorly in 2015, its vote share, at 24.4 percent was the biggest. If the vote share of LJP, which stands at 4.8 percent, is added to its kitty, it substantially enhances its prospects. Even though LJP had won only two seats out of 42 it contested in 2015, its appeal among a substantial section of dalits remains intact. With the passing away of Ram Vilas Paswan, it could also garner some sympathy votes as well.

More the LJP improves its prospects, the worse it would become for the JD(U), which only commands a vote share of 16.8 percent. Hence, this election, if anything, is more about the political future of Nitish Kumar, than anything else.

The opposition, meanwhile, has so far presented a lackluster show. With RJD supremo Laloo Prasad Yadav out of the scene, it is not the same for the RJD anymore, with an immature Tejaswi Yadav leading the front. Though the RJD commands a respectable 18.4 percent vote share, which comprises its loyal MY (Muslim-Yadav) bulk votes, but Tejaswi Yadav’s political mantle is still untested. Besides, he is also hamstrung by the political baggage of his father’s 15 year rule, which the BJP describes as jungle raj. His alliance with Congress does not yield big dividends for him because the party has completely lost its moorings in Bihar.

2015 was the party’s best performance in more than a decade, when it could win 27 seats out of 41 it contested, with 6.7 percent vote share. What, however, could change the picture for the RJD is its alliance with the Left parties this time. Though the CPI and CPM are irrelevant in Bihar, they are contesting on six and four seats respectively, the CPI(ML) is a force to reckon with.

Senior Congress leaders admit that in Bhojpur and Siwan areas, the CPI(ML) has a good support base and is in a position to win 10-15 seats on its own. Out of 19 seats it is contesting as part of the grand alliance, the party is expected to put up a good show. The RJD is contesting 144 seats while the Congress is contesting 70 seats this time. People’s mood for change, however, could throw up some surprises in this election.

Also important is the fact that this is the first ever big election globally to be held during corona times. Bihar is one of the worst affected states. The state has so far reported 1,96,268 cases, but its recovery rate is impressive at 92 percent. A total of 1,85,000 people have recovered from the disease so far, while 946 have died.

State government officials attribute the good recovery figure to the effective management of the crisis, with timely detection, isolation and treatment. However, the opposition differs, lambasting the government for mishandling the situation, especially the migrants crisis.

Politics in Bihar follows a trajectory completely different from the rest of the country. In 2014 when the Modi wave had swamped the entire country and states were going saffron one after another, Bihar went its own way in the assembly election held after a year in 2015. The BJP was routed, winning only 53 seats out of 157 it contested for the 243-member House. If the 2014 trend had been followed, the NDA, which comprised LJP, HAM and RLSP then, should have won 172 assembly segments, but it could win just 58. The LJP and RLSP won two each and HAM won one seat.

The mahagathbandhan, which then comprised RJD-JD(U)-Congress, won 179 seats and formed the government, with Nitish Kumar as chief minister. This was despite the fact that the RJD had emerged as the single largest party, winning 81 seats out of 101 it contested. JD(U), which had also contested 101 seats, could win only 71 seats, yet the RJD supreme Laloo Prasad Yadav had honoured his commitment to make Nitish Kumar the chief minister. In this grand alliance, the Congress too had done surprisingly well, winning 27 seats out of 41 it contested.

It is almost certain that this election too will throw surprising results and it will be interesting to watch how BJP treats Nitish Kumar post-poll should his tally be lower than that of BJP. Laloo Yadav’s magnanimity is a rarity in Modi-Shah’s BJP. No one has forgotten the Uddhav Thakeray episode in Maharashtra.