Shah’s Bihar pitch

Considering Nitish has lost face over the migrant crisis, the BJP launches e-rally despite criticism on political opportunism

Much as he might defend his virtual rally for partymen in Bihar as an encouragement to the Corona warriors among them and an expression of concern for migrants, the inescapable fact is that Home Minister and BJP supremo Amit Shah has not lost time in sounding the bugle in the poll-bound State. Had the BJP Government been really concerned about migrants, then it would have provisioned for them in its lockdown strategies and not been reactive in sending them back when the reverse exodus caught everybody off guard. Or at least ensured direct cash transfers to them instead of simply eulogising them as “builders of India.” So the e-rally looks like saving the party’s political stock value, considering that there has been some erosion of its alliance partner and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has upset the poor with his initial reluctance to take the returnees back. Knowing the slippage could cost the BJP dearly and in the absence of a trustworthy local face from among its own so close to the November elections, Shah’s move seems interventionist lest there be a further slide. Aware that he would attract charges of political opportunism in the middle of a mismanaged pandemic, Shah still chose to be the counterweight to an angry Opposition in the State, which has been playing up the plight of migrants and the insensitivity of the ruling regime towards them. Both stranded migrants and students from Bihar, so far a large part of Nitish’s electorate, were taken aback by his stance of delaying their return. In fact, migrants compared his non-action to the swift rehabilitation efforts of his Uttar Pradesh counterpart, Yogi Adityanath, somebody he had blamed for encouraging the exodus in the first place. True, Bihar has a pathetic health infrastructure and the returnees have led to the COVID spiral in the State but by disowning responsibilities for the sons of the soil, Nitish attracted widespread criticism while clouding his image of being a powerful administrator.  That had been taking a beating for a while, particularly after the Muzaffarpur shelter abuse case. But for the BJP, the warning bells came last week when Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Chirag Paswan said the BJP might “want to have a change of mind” about the Chief Minister’s face. Which is why Shah stepped in to reaffirm faith in Nitish being the face of the coalition to avoid further confusion.

So far, Nitish has been able to convert every crisis into an opportunity but post the exit of trusted aides Prashant Kishor and Pavan Varma, who contributed to his success in the 2015 Assembly elections, he has not quite been able to get a grip on crises. His own ideological clash with the BJP’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and his categorical stand on the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) have been destabilising for him as well. But even as a shrewd politician he is known to be, Nitish looks extremely compromised by circumstance, unable to snap his symbiotic link with the BJP so closer to the State polls, and being forced to spell out his views on citizenship of minorities. With Kishor gone, he seems less and less a man of his own conviction and more like the BJP’s puppet. And at a time when all other Chief Ministers are crafting their future on the success of their respective COVID management strategies, Nitish has clearly fallen behind. The Muslim and Yadav votepie consolidates around Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). But Nitish’s voter base is still substantial on paper, comprising the numerically significant extremely backward castes (EBCs), which account for 30 per cent of his votes, the Mahadalits who account for 15 per cent, women, whom he won over with his landmark 2016 decision to impose prohibition in the state and a sizeable number of youths too. These easily comprise 45 per cent of voters in Bihar. But now some of his own supporters are against him for mishandling the issue of home-bound migrants. It is precisely for this reason that Shah moved in, even highlighting the persona of Narendra Modi. So the going for the BJP and Nitish will, henceforth, be uneasy. The BJP has been breathing heavy on Nitish, particularly after the JD(U)’s dismal solo performance in the Jharkhand Assembly polls. Although they had agreed to a 1:1 seat-sharing formula in principle, the BJP has the upper hand vis-à-vis him in the time of the pandemic. Nitish has burnt bridges with other federal front leaders to such an extent that he has no other option but to be with the BJP. Shah’s rally means that the BJP, like in Maharashtra, may just be looking to harbour “first party” ambitions in the next round. For this November, it will be Nitish. If he fails, given the anger over the Patna floods, the Muzaffarpur encephalitis deaths, the accumulation of prohibition-related cases in courts and now the migrants, the BJP can justify considering a change. If the combine wins, the BJP will keep harping on the Modi brand as being the real magic. Either way, Shah has waged the war of perception.

Source : The Pioneer