With over 7 crore voters expected to exercise their franchise, the Bihar Assembly election is the first major poll exercise in India since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The successful conduct of the three-phase polls will be seen as a remarkable achievement for the Election Commission in the light of some out-of-the-box measures introduced to comply with Covid-19 protocol. Apart from logistical challenges that were not seen before, this election holds significance as it marks a generational shift in the State’s politics. Lalu Prasad, the patriarch of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and a towering personality who was a major influence in the past, is out of the picture now. He is in a Ranchi jail after being convicted in a corruption case. Another veteran Sharad Yadav has been suffering from ill-health and prominent Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan died recently. Their heirs seem to have not just taken over the reins but have also taken over the narrative this time. A State that was largely dominated by caste politics is now witnessing a poll campaign focused on issues of development, jobs, public health and plight of migrant workers. For Nitish Kumar, who has completed 15 years in office and seeking a fourth term, the elections serve as an acid test amidst growing anti-incumbency. Of late, his government has been facing flak over its handling of the pandemic situation, particularly in the wake of the return of thousands of migrant workers to the State and the resultant rise in unemployment and rural distress.
The widespread damage caused by the floods has further added to the government’s woes. There is no doubt that he has delivered on a range of promises, including improvement in infrastructure like roads, power and water supply, law and order and curbing corruption. However, a sense of fatigue has set in as the JD(U)-BJP alliance government has been unable to move to the next stage of reforms. Since the NDA made a virtual clean sweep in Bihar in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the alliance was expected to repeat the performance and romp home quite comfortably. However, the exit of the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP), headed by Chirag Paswan, has dramatically altered the situation. The intriguing part of the drama is that the LJP remains a partner in the Central government while declaring an open battle with Nitish Kumar, the NDA’s chief ministerial candidate. The LJP, which has a strong Dalit support base, has reiterated its loyalty to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, despite fielding its candidates in constituencies where the JD(U) is in the fray. This strategy has lent credence to the argument that it was part of the saffron party’s long-term plan to edge out Nitish Kumar.
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