Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bihar battleground for old hatreds

India is gripped with election fever. No news bulletin passes without references to the campaign; newspapers devote whole sections to it; the talk in government circles in New Delhi is about little else.

This is not a national poll — the Government of Narendra Modi is not yet 18 months into its five-year term — but an election for the Legislative Assembly of the north-eastern State of Bihar. In normal times the voting would be of little general interest to Indians, but these are not normal times.

There are two main reasons why Bihar is in the national headlines. The first has to do with India’s constitutional make-up. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a healthy majority in the Lower House of the National Parliament, the Lok Sabah, but its legislation can be blocked – and frequently is – by opponents in the Upper House, the Rajya Sabah.

Membership of the Rajya Sabah is determined by State Legislatures, so in order to overturn the Opposition majority, the BJP needs to win in a succession of State elections of which Bihar is one.

The second reason is all about personalities and the two current heavyweights of Indian politics, one of course being Modi and the other the current Chief Minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar.

To say the two men dislike each other would be an understatement – they despise each other with a vitriolic hatred that goes back decades. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) Party was once in alliance with the BJP but he withdrew it when Modi was selected as the Prime Ministerial candidate for the national election.

There is little doubt Kumar believed he should have been the choice and now he sees his chance to get his own back on his old enemy by humiliating him on home turf.

To do so he has formed what is being called a Grand Alliance of Opposition parties that were once at each other’s throats – the Rashtriya Janata Dal of former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Indian National Congress, once the natural party of government in the nation, but now reduced to a bit player in this contest.

Of course, Modi is not a candidate in the poll, but the actual leader of the BJP Opposition, Sushil Modi (no relation) hardly seems to get a mention.

It is the Prime Minister who has stomped up and down the State, describing the three-part coalition as “the three idiots”. Kumar hit back by composing a poem lampooning Modi to which Modi replied that Kumar should keep practicing for his new role as a poet after his election defeat.

As with most elections in India, the Bihar poll is spread over five days, with the final polling day being on the 5 November after which counting will take place and the result made known before the State Government’s current term ends on 29 November.  

With three polling days already completed, both groups claim they are leading, but BJP analysts point to the poor showing of Janata Dal (United) in the May 2014 national election, when it was only able to win two of the Bihar seats.

“Kumar cut himself adrift from his BJP lifeline and it is only a matter of time before he will sink without trace,” one said.  

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