Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
Two important States are having elections – Bihar is electing new Assembly and Madhya Pradesh is undergoing a bunch of by elections to fill vacancies created by the resignation of Congress MLAs that brought the downfall of the Congress Government there.
In both States, it is a high-stake, high-voltage political battle where the Opposition, Congress and its ally Rashtriya Janata Dal is mounting a challenge to the ruling BJP. While in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress eyes at power if it wins all the 28 by elections and in Bihar, its ally RJD is mounting a real challenge to BJP led NDA Government led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.
Why these elections have become important is that the outcome will have the potential to alter the political dynamics, as both the States are very big and important ones that together send nearly 70 MPs to the Lok Sabha. In both States, the prestige of ruling BJP is at stake. First, if we take Madhya Pradesh, it was after 15 long years that the Congress managed to just about dislodge the Shivraj Singh Chauhan Government of the BJP with a slender margin. In itself, it was a big achievement given the fact that Congress was nearly finished as an organisation in the State. But, given the clash of egos and Chief Ministerial ambitions of a younger and popular Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia and Congress veteran Kamal Nath, it was only a matter of time when the Government came crashing down.
So, it was not a surprise when Scindia played ball with the BJP, walked over to a party he had opposed ever since he joined politics along with his loyal MLAs. These MLAs first resigned from the Assembly and brought down the magic number, in the process felling the Kamal Nath Government of the Congress and enabled the return of Shivraj Singh Chauhan as the Chief Minister. Now, elections to 28 vacancies created by the resignation of MLAs and other vacancies are being held, campaigning for which is at a feverish pitch.
The Congress needs to win all the 28 seats for which polling is being held so that it can cross the magic figure of 115. At present, it has a strength of 88 MLAs in a house of 230.
Both the parties have deployed their heavyweights for campaigning as stakes are very high. Congress veteran Kamal Nath is confident of wresting power from the BJP, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan is sure that Jyotiraditya Scindia will deliver the nine seats needed for crossing the magic number. On the other hand, the Congress needs to win all the seats if it wants to dislodge the Government, a tall task given the fact that these by elections are in seats over which Scindia holds sway. In essence, it has become a Scindia versus Kamal Nath war.
As things stand today, it appears that the BJP will continue to hold onto Madhya Pradesh.
But when it comes to the other crucial State of Bihar, that sends 40 MPs to Lok Sabha, the battle between the ruling Janata Dal United–BJP combine NDA and the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) comprising Rashtriya Janata Dal (of Laloo Prasad Yadav, since jailed in corruption case), Congress and Left, has become very intense and interesting, as newer surprise elements have been thrown into the political equation.
All the A-listers of Congress, BJP, JDU and RJD have already hit the campaign trail. The BJP has deployed its huge firepower led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, party president JP Nadda and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, and of course sitting Chief Minister Nitish Kumar campaigning to retain power. Till recently it was being thought that it was going to be a cakewalk for the Chief Minister in the absence of any Opposition.
But, suddenly, the JDU and BJP leadership has woken to a real challenge from Laloo Prasad Yadav’s son, Tejashwi Yadav, coming into his own and mounting a campaign that is drawing huge, responsive crowds. Copying his father’s question-answer style of campaigning, the Yadav junior gets the crowds to participate in the campaign and extracts a promise from them to ‘oust Nitish babu’ before moving onto his next meeting venue. Former Congress president, one of the party’s star campaigner, Rahul Gandhi, held joint campaign rallies with Tejashwi Yadav, to a tumultuous response from the people crowding the venues.
Which why, the BJP strategy has accorded prime role to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to do the heavy lifting, especially since the popularity of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is on the wane. In several places, he is facing protests from the people and his Ministers being manhandled by people when going to seek votes in villages. There is anti-incumbency on the ground, which is clearly visible. Nitish Kumar has completed three straight terms as Chief Minister and is seeking the fourth term.
Since the last time he won elections in 2015, political situation is very different at present.
At that time, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, the two stalwarts who have dominated the State’s political scene since the 1990s, came together for a grand alliance to inflict a crushing defeat on the BJP. But midway during the tenure of JDU-RJD Government, Nitish Kumar dumped his partner and formed an alliance with the BJP to form the Government in 2017. But the NDA this time has a casualty with LJP, of Ramvilas Paswan now headed by his son Chirag Paswan, walking away from NDA for the polls. It is now contesting the polls on its own and can easily be described as the X factor.
Political observers see this as an intelligent strategy to wean away some of the anti-establishment vote from Mahagathbandan.
In these polls, Hindutva, of course, is the pet theme that the BJP wants to focus on. And then the BJP has sought to cash in on another potential emotive issue of Sushant Singh Rajput, a Bihar lad treated badly by the Bollywood, and his unfortunate untimely death. BJP’s cultural wing, Kala Sanskriti Manch, has 35,000 stickers with equal numbers of masks with the photo of Sushant with the slogan “Na bhule hain, Na Bhulne denge.”
Another top issue that the BJP is forcefully articulating is the agriculture reforms of the Modi Government. Its benefits for the farming community are the top talking points of all the BJP leaders.
The Opposition on the other hand is focusing on what it alleges ‘misgovernance of Nitish Kumar’ and the faulty economic programmes of the Central Government. Recent Covid related lockdown and the migrant’s crisis resulting out of that is a point that the Opposition keeps reminding the voters. Though initial surveys have given an edge to the BJP led NDA in Bihar, the late surge of Opposition behind Tejashwi Yadav has the potential to upset its applecart.
Caste equations at present help the NDA, but it remains to be seen as to who will celebrate come November 10 when results of the elections and byelections are to be announced.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected]
and Twitter handle @kvlakshman