Narratives do matter in polls. They increasingly started to influence voting patterns ever since the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) unveiled the power of social media during the 2013 Delhi assembly polls, emerging as a political force from almost nowhere. Prime Minister Narendra Modi quickly picked the threads and patented the strategy during the 2014 campaign.
The spin masters and media strategists were never as important as they are today in any poll campaign. Though the best-known political spin master, Prashant Kishor, is conspicuous by his absence from campaigning in his home state, the spin of words is complementing the pace and gruel of campaign at grassroots.
On Monday, Bihar’s deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi took to Twitter to say that the rival Rashtriya Janata Dal's chief ministerial face Tejashwi Yadav had humiliated upper caste people at a rally in the remote Rohtas area. Sushil Kumar Modi, Bihar BJP’s tallest leader, is a known baiter of the upper castes and is often targeted by leaders of his party for the step-motherly treatment to communities loyal to the BJP.
Posting of such information by Sushil Modi somewhere betrays the jitters in the BJP campaign, which suspects that a section of the upper-caste voters could back the grand alliance (Mahagathbandhan) of the RJD, Congress and the Left parties. The magnitude of this edginess is such that Sushil Modi has also claimed that his rivals used black magic against him a few years ago.
This nerviness, despite opinion polls showing a clear lead for the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), has a context. In Bihar the pre-poll surveys have often differed with the post-poll results. During the 2015 assembly elections, the BJP’s vote share was projected to be 35.5 per cent and RJD-Congress together 15.2 per cent.
However, when the results came, the RJD-Congress combine had polled 25.5 per cent and the BJP’s share had come down to 25 per cent. The Mahagathbandhan’s campaign, unlike the electioneering of the past, this time around is reaching out to the communities beyond its traditional vote bank of Muslims and Yadavs.
Tejashwi so far has remained ‘vocal on local’ issues and refused to get into a debate on the subjects of Article 370, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and Ram Mandir. Promising jobs and controlling prices of essential goods are the lynchpin of his campaign. In fact, he responded to charges like use of black magic saying that such moves aim to deviate focus.
To illustrate the point further, All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader Asaduddin Owaisi has been complaining that Yadav is quiet on Muslim issues. However, the master strategist of the Mahagathbandhan’s campaign (read incarcerated leader Lalu Prasad Yadav), knows for sure that talking on these tricky topics would be walking on a minefield laid by the BJP.
Like Jharkhand, where the Congress, RJD and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) fought together, the focus was kept on local issues and they successfully ousted the BJP government. So, the Gupkar declaration cuts no ice, and Rahul Gandhi mentioning China doesn’t get much appreciation in the strategy room of the grand alliance.
In the back alleys of Bihar, not to forget that it's India's most politically cognizant state, there is also talk about the volume of vitriol which Chirag Paswan is pouring on chief minister Nitish Kumar. The narrative style which Chirag is pushing is definitely not from the repertoire of his late father Ram Vilas Paswan.
The late central minister was never known to be abusive towards his political rivals and was rather known to enjoy a congenial relationship across the political spectrum, which helped him smoothly hop alliances. On the other hand, his son Chirag has even threatened to jail Janata Dal (United) supremo Nitish Kumar for alleged corruption in the ‘7 Nishchay’ scheme.
Addressing an election rally, he is reported to have promised that if the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) comes to power, he will initiate a probe and all those found responsible, whether an official or the chief minister, will be jailed. Given Chirag’s ‘loose’ talk, there is concern in the strategy room of the Mahagathbandhan.
There is a feeling that given the history of conflict between known supporter castes of Nitish and Dusadhs (Paswan’s community), such venomous attacks on Nitish could consolidate the chief minister’s vote bank. Chirag is taking this conflict further ahead by putting up candidates against another National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner, Mahadalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM).
As mentioned in these columns earlier, given the social structuring and their impact on the voting patterns, Nitish Kumar right during his first term as the chief minister created the electoral vertical of the Mahadalits. In 2007, soon after he had consolidated his position as CM, Nitish set up the State Mahadalit Commission to recommend inclusion of extremely weaker castes from the list of Scheduled Castes.
Dusadhs and Chamars were kept out of the list of castes recommended by the commission to be categorised as Mahadalits. Till date, despite the Mahadalit Commission coming out with two more recommendations, Dusadhs are still to find a place in the Mahadalit list, though the Chamars have made it.
The empowered Mahadalits, given Chirag’s spiteful attack on Nitish, could consolidate behind the chief minister the way they did in 2010 and 2015. This is the 15% vote share which Nitish showcases in addition to his traditional Kurmi supporters, the community he belongs to. Thus, the alleged BJP gamble to cut Nitish Kumar to size through Chirag Paswan could end up benefiting the incumbent chief minister.
The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst. Views expressed are personal