Performance test – Calcutta Telegraph

People and cattle gather around a campaign vehicle of chief minister Nitish Kumar in Arwal. The vehicle uses audio-visuals for campaigning — Nitish’s speech promising more development and attack on the BJP for failing to bring black money and denigrating the Bihari DNA. It also has video clips of Lalu Prasad’s Gandhi Maidan speech, aimed at the Yadav voters. The campaign vehicle owned by Harendra Yadav has been hired by an agency managing Nitish’s campaign. Harendra said he is paid Rs 880 a day plus fuel expenses. Picture by JP Yadav 

If 2014 was about Brand Modi, the election this year is a test for Brand Nitish. For Ajay Kumar Dubey (55), a Brahmin voter in Ghosian Khurd village in Rohtas district, Brand Nitish was diluted the day he joined hands with Lalu Prasad.

“Nitish first ditched the BJP and then (Jitan Ram) Manjhi. Now he has gone ahead and joined hands with Lalu, the one who put Bihar in the pits. Why,” Dubey asks and himself answers: “Just to become CM… What kind of politics is this?”

But like all good political debates in Bihar, this assertion is immediately met with forceful resistance.

“Nitish was God till he was with the BJP and turned into devil when he left (the BJP)? Your politics is amazing,” comes the sharp retort from Manoj Kumar Singh (45).

Typical of political discussions in Bihar’s rural hinterlands, Manoj is joined by others in taking on Dubey. “Ye faarword beckward ka khel hai. Faarword log Nitish raaj me khub faida liya ab dushman ho gaya hai (This is forward-backward play. The forwards enjoyed the gains of Nitish rule and have turned his enemy now),” says Dinbandhu Dinanath, five years older than Dubey, who he dismissively says is favouring the BJP owing to “caste reasons”.

The “debate” was being conducted at a tea-stall this reporter stopped at in the course of his travel to Sasaram in south Bihar, about 165km from Patna.

The two districts of Rohtas and Kaimur have a larger share of the upper castes compared to the northern regions of the state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already addressed two election rallies and attracted huge crowds.

Ghosian Khurd, a village dominated by the backward castes, sits on the Ara-Bikramganj-Sasaram road. Kurmis (Nitish Kumar’s caste brethren) have the largest share followed by the Kushwahas, Mahtos, Paswans, Lohar (blacksmith) and Badhaee (wood craftsmen). Brahmins, the caste group to which Dubey belongs, also have a substantial share with some 15 households in the village, which falls under the Karakat Assembly segment.

The heated and prolonged debate calms down with the backward caste members asking Dubey to answer a simple question: “Nitish ne kaam kya hai ki nahi? (Has Nitish performed or not?)”

“Haan, Nitish has done good work,” Dubey acknowledges, but sticks to his assertion. “Why did he join hands with Lalu? Had he contested alone I would have voted for him.”

“Kaam kiya to vote dijiye (If he has performed then vote for him…),” the villagers tell Dubey almost in unison and burst into laughter to lighten the mood.

Dubey may or may not vote for Nitish but the “kaam kiya hai toh vote milega (he has performed and will get votes)” refrain keeps recurring across the Bihar hinterlands, underlining the popularity of Brand Nitish amid the din of the campaign woven around caste and communal lines.

The tea stall debate also indicates a consolidation of the backward castes, who feel it would be “namak harami” (betrayal) not to vote for Nitish. Lalu might be turning away the upper caste voters like Dubey and a section of the lower OBCs due to his purported “negative brand value” but the strength of Brand Nitish appeared to be too powerful to be suppressed by the fear of a re-run of the dark ages or “jungle raj”.

“Nitish maalik rahenge toh Lalu kya karenge? (What will Lalu do when Nitish would be the ruler)?” says Sarita Devi, convinced that Lalu would not come in the way of the welfare measures.

Her fellow villager Shanti Devi explains why the women would vote for Nitish. “Nitish has performed… He gave us roads; gave the children school uniform, books and cycles; gave food grain and above all there is peace. If we don’t vote for Nitish then it would be betrayal,” she says.

Sarita and Shanti are poor residents of Bilaspur village under Dinara Assembly segment of Rohtas district. The two middle-aged women from the lower backward community silenced Bechan Shahu, who said there was a “Modi hawa too…”.

“Modi ka hawa upar hai, niche vote sab Nitish ka hai (Modi wave is on the top, down here the votes are all for Nitish),” says Sarita Devi when pointed out that Modi too was making big promises to transform Bihar, including a package of Rs 1.25 lakh crore.

The BJP has fielded Rajendra Singh, a key RSS functionary (organisational secretary) from Dinara. Despite the strong presence of his caste-folk Rajputs in the constituency, Singh appears to be struggling to get the backward caste votes.

The BJP has deployed all Yadav faces of the party – Nand Kishore Yadav, Ram Kripal Yadav (the prize catch from the Lalu camp ahead of last year’s Lok Sabha polls), Bhupender Yadav, etc – to dent the substantial Yadav votes in the constituency.

“A number of Yadav leaders of the BJP come here to plead that we vote for Rajinder Singh. But we have clearly told them that this time please pardon us,” said Kamta Singh Yadav of Kumhaura village off the Ara-Mohania road.

In village after village, the Yadavs and the other backward castes appeared to have joined hands. The Yadavs in Dinara indicated they were veering en-bloc towards the JDU’s Jai Kumar Singh, despite him being an upper caste Rajput.

The performance narrative of the incumbent government’s last two terms remains the dominant theme in favour of Nitish. The improvement in the law and order situation that voters termed as “dramatic” comes across as a key reason why Brand Nitish holds sway across large swathes of the hinterland.

“Hamani ke shaanti cha-hee kranti na…,” remarks Suraj Seth in colloquial Bhojpuri, when pointed out about Modiji’s promises of development. Seth belongs to the backward Sonar or goldsmith community. The backward communities like Telis and Sonars are being bracketed as BJP supporters.

The strength of Brand Nitish appears to be working on some upper castes as well. If Dubey remains firm, another member of his caste, 83-year-old Ramkripal Choubey, in a village close to Sasaram says: “Jeetega to Nitishe… Vote uske paas hai (Nitish only will win…since the votes are with him).”

Choubey in fact went on to criticise Prime Minister Modi for holding so many rallies in Bihar. “I have never seen any PM giving so much time to foreign trips and state elections,” he said and wondered why the Prime Minister was doing so.

Women members of his family came out to affirm they would vote for Nitish since he has performed.

“Modi is good for the country but for Bihar we feel Nitish should remain CM… Earlier women were scared to go out even during the day. Now they go out even during the night,” says Beena Choubey (45), echoing the feeling of several women voters.

If Modi had capitalised on the anti-incumbency (Congress) sentiment in 2014, for Nitish his biggest strength remains his brand that he has cultivated through his two terms of incumbency. But to find out whether the brand gets translated into votes in south Bihar, where the BJP holds sway, one would have to wait for November 8.

Sasaram votes on October 16

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