Saturday, April 11, 2009

Nitish riding the incumbency advantage

Rasheeda Bhagat writes:

Patna: It is really an ‘in the face’ kind of thing in Patna. Anybody you talk to — your driver, the fruit-seller, to an economist, a bureaucrat or even a former Congress MLA — the message is simple and unanimous: Bihar under the Chief Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, is finally on the road to development.

Even a four-term MLA is full of praise for the governance Mr Nitish Kumar has provided. Like everybody else, the long-time Congressman cites the improvement in education that has happened in Bihar. “He has at least established the academic calendar which had disintegrated during 15 years of Lalu’s rule.”

On health-care delivery, Dr Prabhat P. Ghosh, Director of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), finds a “sea change.” He gives the anecdote of his maid-servant, who had a gynaecological problem. “My wife told her I know a good gynaecologist, go and see her. But she told my wife very confidently, ‘No madam, I go to the Patna Medical College Hospital and I get very good treatment.’ For a lower class woman to say this is not a small thing.”

Dr Ghosh thinks kidnappings and extortions have come down; “even if they exist, they are not being reported fully maybe because Nitish has a friendly press; he is very civil to the media!” But roads have improved, he adds. Also, the primary education sector, though for this, Dr Ghosh gives credit to the Centre’s Sarva Siksha Abhiyan programme under which the Bihar government last year recruited two lakh teachers. Schools are also being renovated.
Muslim vote

All this work, he believes, will help the Janata Dal (U) make a dent the RJD’s traditional vote bank to some extent. The Muslim vote in the State is a substantial 16.5 per cent. A chunk of it went to the RJD-Congress combine in 2004, but this time Mr Nitish Kumar could lay claim to a part of it. “Muslims are not with Mr Lalu Prasad to the extent they were five or six years back. Mr Nitish Kumar has allowed certain amount of space in the JD(U) for Muslims. He has a backward class Muslim leader as a Rajya Sabha MP, and given space to upper- and lower-class Muslims too. It is no longer a bipolar situation in Bihar vis-À-vis Muslims. A section will vote for the Congress too.”

Dr Shaibal Gupta, ADRI Member-Secretary, finds the election scenario in Bihar “a little confused” because it is no longer bipolar politics between the NDA and the UPA; the Left parties — the CPI, the CPI(M) and the CPI-ML — have also come together. “And they will form a substantial group. The CPI was a powerful force here but over the years the CPI-ML has emerged in strength. And all the three Left parties have formed a front.”

On whether the Congress was right in rejecting the RJD’s offer of three seats, Dr Gupta says: “Yes, to the extent that unlike in 2004 when the Congress was in decline and disarray at the national level, now it has a strong profile at the national level. Nobody thought they would be able to complete five years of rule. So in that background what Mr Lalu Prasad did to the Congress was not commensurate with its present stature.”
Co-opting enlightened groups

Dr Gupta adds that this is the right strategy to grow the Congress presence in the Hindi heartland and will create a new benchmark, “I am not sure if it is the right strategy in the political sense because they have not yet worked out the strategy to co-opt the enlightened social groups in either Bihar or UP.”

Dr Gupta thinks the Congress is still pursuing policies in the ‘symbolic sense’. “Mr Rahul Gandhi goes to a Dalit’s house and stays overnight and the Congress thinks the Dalits will start voting for it. But the party doesn’t realise that in the last 20-25 years, things have changed and the Dalits are so much more empowered and have their own agenda. They have been ale to create thousands of leaders from their ranks. Ms Mayawati could win an election on her own in UP. So in that background symbolic gestures won’t work.”

So, though the Nitish Kumar-led NDA may do better than the others, the Congress will definitely re-create an identity in Bihar. “But the real fight will be among the NDA, the RJD/LJP and the Left group.”

On Mr Nitish Kumar walking out of the NDA and joining the UPA — if the JD(U) wins 22 or so seats and if invited by the Congress to checkmate Mr Lalu Prasad — Dr Ghosh does not see this happening. He doesn’t think good governance is sufficient to enable the JD(U) return to power on its own in the Bihar Assembly where a JD(U)-BJP coalition in place. “This coalition is important for him. The JD(U) is not a well-established and organised party in terms of cadres, offices, infrastructure, like the BJP is. Mr Nitish Kumar does not have a band of committed supporters like Mr Lalu Prasad. Because he has done well, many people are with him, but if he doesn’t do so well, they might disappear. Secondly, coalitions are not only between parties but also social groups. So many people from the upper section are with Mr Nitish Kumar because of the BJP.”

His call on the Bihar outcome: “Very difficult to say; initially I thought it would be one-third for Lalu-Paswan and two-thirds for NDA. But things are rapidly changing by the day.”