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Khaleejtimes International

Nitish Kumar plays unifier-in-chief for BJP in Bihar

If NDA was a Davis Cup team, Nitish easily is the faction’s non-playing captain, holding a decisive sway.

As I race against time to make it to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public rally in Paliganj – about 50km southeast of Bihar capital Patna and a drive of about an hour and a half – I egg my driver on to shift to top gear. I do so because I find the road, after covering the election in Bengal for four days on the trot, exceptionally smooth and well maintained. At least I can scribble my story while in the car, I say to myself before turning to Ajay Singh who’s driving me down to the small city that forms part of the Patliputra constituency, one of the eight seats that go to the polls in the seventh and the final phase of India’s general election on Sunday.

“The roads, the new bridges you see are all thanks to Nitish Kumar sir,” says Singh, who hails from Arwal, one of the six assembly constituencies of the Jahanabad Lok Sabha seat that also goes to the polls on Sunday. “He (Nitish Kumar) is also a Kurmi (a farming clan) like me,” he gleams while stubbing the khaini – a version of an unprocessed chewing tobacco Nitish Kumar government is reportedly contemplating banning after prohibiting sale and consumption of alcohol in 2016 – in the side of his mouth.

In a state that fights elections divided or united on the basis of caste over real issues and mandates, Nitish Kumar – whose JD(U) is contesting in 17 seats alongside BJP’s 17 and six seats of Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) – is turning out to be an unlikely unifier in chief, much to the delight of Narendra Modi and his camp.

Physically frail yet vociferous in making an argument and winning it, white-haired Awadh Singh, 75, tells a group of young men half his age at a tea-stall, why – ironically enough – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) mustn’t be trusted. “They haven’t helped curb prices and have done nothing much here,” he tells, just as Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath hurtles down Bharat Mata ki Jai over a loudspeaker in a public rally – barely 400 metres away at Kankarbagh’s famous ‘tempo stand’ – asking the thousands gathered to vote for Ravi Shankar Prasad, a Union Minister but a first MP hopeful, fighting from Patna Sahib.

“I will vote for Nitish (Kumar). He is our son of the soil, has a clean image and has done a lot of work for the state,” Singh, who retired in 2002 from the state’s education board, elaborates. “Hence my vote will go to the JD(U) on Sunday when I go back home to vote,” he adds, alluding to Kaushalendra Kumar, the two-time JD(U) MP from Nalanda, seat of one of the world’s oldest universities and now a Unesco World Heritage site. Singh also belongs to the Kurmi caste. Sat next to him, is his friend and fellow retired government officer Ambika Prasad, 73, who says he will vote for Ravi Shankar Prasad because of Nitish Kumar and “BJP’s alliance with the JD(U)”.

If NDA was a Davis Cup team, Nitish easily is the faction’s non-playing captain, holding a decisive sway.

The Bihar chief minister’s ‘invisible’ unifying charm is hard to miss as I spend the day talking to more people on the streets – chaiwallahs to fruit vendors to cart pullers to the average executive – and they put it down to his developmental work in the state.

“He’s made a new bridge, work on Patna metro has gathered steam and is in full swing,” says Dina Ram, 30, who drives an autorickshaw that most people here wrongly refer to as tempo, the now defunct German automakers. “It all happened under the Nitish government and the funding for it was sanctioned from the Centre by the BJP. Their work is evident,” he adds, pointing to the new 14,948-ft Digha-Sonpur rail-road bridge connecting Digha Ghat in Patna and Pahleja Ghat in Saran district that was inaugurated in February 2016 to much fanfare. It is the second longest rail-cum-road bridge in India.

But that’s not telling the whole story. Of Patna Sahib’s 2 million plus electorate, close to 350,000 are Yadavs and Muslims, whose votes appear to be easy pickings for Shatrughan Sinha, a top Bollywood star of his time in the eighties and a two-time MP from the constituency. “Even half of them voting for Sinha would mean a clear margin of close to 200,000 – enough to sway the seat in his favour,” says Mithilesh Kumar, who is studying to crack the difficult Indian Administrative Services exams.

“And he is a Kayastha too. He’s got the background and the caste on his side. Yet he is only unifying people against him,” adds Kumar, from Madhubani district on the eastern fringes of the state, close to the Nepal border. His grouse, like most? “He doesn’t stay here. He’s no longer one of us.”

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Shatrughan had polled close to 500,000 votes, around 55 per cent of the voter turnout. His nearest rival, Kunal Singh of the Congress, had got 30,000 less than half and just under a quarter of the vote share. But this time, people on the street say, he may have been taking it a little too easy after having jumped ships, over to the Congress, that’s taking on the BJP in a direct fight in Bihar in only two places – Patna Sahib and Sasaram, the home constituency of India’s first woman speaker Meira Kumar.

Sinha and the UPA at large may still get Yadav-Muslim vote here but breaking his own Kayastha vote bank may not be easy, say some. “Wo ab kahan kayastha rahein? Pehle mittie ke insaan the, abhi badalo mein rehte hain. Unke paon zameen pe nahin girte (How does he still remain a Kayastha? He was a son of the soil but now he stays in the clouds with his feet high up,” said Amrendra Mishra, a banking executive, referring to his “Mumbai highlife” and lack of presence in Patna.

– abhishek@khaleejtimes.com 


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