Nitish Kumar had led the JDU-BJP coalition to victory in the last election, ending the RJD 'misrule' during which Bihar had become a synonym for backwardness, especially in later years when Lalu Prasad Yadav had anointed his wife Rabri Devi as Chief Minister.
Nitish had fought on the plank of development and the electorate's anger against Lalu Yadav had helped him win the election. Five years after his victory, the image of Bihar as a lawless state seems to be changing.
The Naxalites' abduction of four policemen early this week and the killing of one of them, indicated the helplessness of the adminstration and that all is still not well in the State where 31 out of 38 districts are Maoist-infested.
1. But Bihar appears better than it was five years ago under RJD rule. Abductions for ransom, particularly, kidnappings of children and robberies had become the norm then. Bureaucracy was riddled with corruption and become ineffecitve while the politician-criminal nexus was thriving.
Today, there are roads in Bihar. The law-and-order has improved. And the bureaucracy is no longer invisible, it works to an extent. Lalu Yadav had perhaps thought that the caste configuration alone would keep his party in power.
However, his arrogance did him in. He failed to see the writing in the wal. In every election, Nitish Kumar's vote share had been going up, and with Congress failing to provide an alternative, the Upper Castes and the angry voter rallied behind Nitish.
2. During Nitish's tenure, communal forces have been kept in check. Lalu Yadav used to claim that he kept Bihar riot-free but Nitish has also matched the record. And despite the fact that BJP is a partner in the government, JDU has not allowed the party to enforce its agenda.
The BJP also appears not in a mood to annoy Nitish and is happy playing second fiddle. In a way, Nitish Kumar has balanced it well. He gave land for AMU campus in Kishanganj despite ABVP's movement and the BJP's visible discomfort.
He made public his reservations regarding Narendra Modi's firebrand Hindutva and took on BJP on this issue. It was seen as an attempt to woo Muslims. For 15-years, it was the Muslim-Yadav [MY] vote boosted by section of backwards and Dalits, that kept RJD in power.
3. The upcoming elections are not going to be a cakewalk for JD(U). After all, Lalu Yadav's RJD and Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) who had fought against each other in the last election, are now united against the JDU-BJP alliance.
With a strong Dalit backing, Paswan's LJP can swing the vote in favour of Lalu Yadav. Nitish has, however, left no stone unturned. Unlike Lalu Yadav and Paswan, who represent communities that have numerical strength, Nitish belongs to Kurmi caste that barely forms 3% of the electorate in Bihar.
He has thus played the 'Mahadalit' card to divide the Dalits. Identifying the Extemely Backward (EBC) and the Pasmanda Muslims or the Dalit Muslims, Nitish has tried to divide the core votebank of his rivals. JDU expects that a section of Muslims, who comprise nearly 17% of voters in Bihar, will support it and this split will help Nitish Kumar.
4. Though Muslims have generally not voted en masse for any party that has a truck with BJP, there are indications that JDU will get a chunk of Muslim vote. Nitish Kumar expects that the upper caste would largely vote for him.
But Congress may play spoiler, as it is contesting the election on its own. A section among upper castes, particularly, the Brahmins, Bhumihars and Rajputs [Thakurs] have been upset with their declining fortunes in Bihar where backward caste leadership emerged post-Mandal era.
In fact, for several decades after independence, upper caste leaders dominated the politics of Bihar. However, the Mandal-genie propelled backward class leaders in North India and Lalu Yadav, who had stopped LK Advani's rath yatra by arresting him in Bihar, became a champion of minorities as well.
For fifteen years, Lalu Yadav remained at the helm and when he got involved in fodder scam, he ruled by proxy as his wife became the chief minister. Feeling marginalised, the Upper Castes now seem to be moving towards the Congress.
If the Congress manages to get away with Upper Caste vote, Nitish Kumar's calculations can go wrong. Rahul Gandhi's election campaigan can make a dent in his vote. Over the next couple of months, Nitish will ask for vote by reminding Biharis about the 'jungle raj' in the state before he took over.
5. Meanwhile, Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan will also put everything at stake. After all, it is going to be a battle for their policial survival also. The battle for Patna is not going to be easy. It's going to be a three corner contest: BJP-JDU Vs RJD-LJP Vs Congress.
For Congress, Bihar remains a key state as far future of the party is concerned. Unless it does well in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, Congress can't hope to form a government on its own at the Centre. Since 1989, Congress has been relegated as a marginal player in both states.
Lately, Congress is seen making a comeback in UP where Mayawati's BSP and Malayam Singh Yadav's SP are the main players. Now Rahul Gandhi wants Bihar unit of the party to fight the election on its own and regain the lost turf. Bihar is the third most populous state in the country after UP and Maharashtra.
6. As far as BJP is concerned, it's been losing its voteshare in the state. The anti-immigrant stand of its other ally Shiv Sena to match the anti-Bihari sentiment of MNS in Maharashtra, has hit the image of BJP in Bihar. The party is more than happy to let Nitish Kumar play the role of big brother.
In some regions, communists and independents can turn it into a multi-cornered contest. The polls will be held in six phases and the verdict will be out by November-end. Till then, we can speculate and enjoy the spectacle.