One party has a face and the other a strong support base. But the question is: will the two mesh to deliver a victory? This is the big challenge facing Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s strategists as the state prepares for a high-voltage assembly poll next month.

In a state where caste affiliations define electoral choices, the Janata Dal (United) does not boast of a strong support base. As a result, its campaign is focusing on Nitish Kumar who, according to his poll managers, is their trump card.

The campaign is highlighting the chief minister’s credibility, his development agenda and the strides made by the state over the past 10 years that he has been at the helm. In fact, the build-up of Brand Nitish began months before the elections were announced with the chief minister’s hoardings and posters coming up across Patna city.

Janata Dal (U) partner, Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, on the other hand, is banking on consolidating its support base of Yadavs and Muslims, which proved to be a winning combination in the past. It is not surprising that in his effort to forge the M-Y combination, the RJD chief’s election speeches are aimed at retaining their loyalties. Unlike the JD(U), Lalu Prasad’s party does not have a credible face to project.

Playing to their strengths

Although Lalu Prasad is a powerful communicator and an entertaining orator, he is legally barred from contesting these elections because of his conviction in the fodder scam. This means that the RJD is unable to project him as its “face” and there is nobody else it can rely upon. In any case, Lalu Prasad is not interested in promoting anybody as he is afraid he could lose control over the party to a possible competitor.

As the election campaign hots up in the coming weeks, Nitish Kumar’s poll managers have the onerous job of ensuring that the strengths of the two parties combine effectively on the ground.

Since Nitish Kumar belongs to the Kurmi community, whose presence in the state population is relatively small, the JD(U) leader had carved out his own vote bank among the mahadalits, or the most backward among the scheduled castes, by wooing them with financial packages and special schemes. The move paid rich dividends in the last assembly polls when Nitish Kumar had partnered the Bharatiya Janata Party whose sway over the upper castes ensured a bumper victory for their alliance.

However the electoral landscape in Bihar has undergone a sea change since the last assembly elections. Nitish Kumar is no longer in partnership with the BJP.

Expanding the support base

Having already lost out badly in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to the Modi wave, it is imperative for Nitish Kumar to retain the support of the mahadalits who propelled him to victory five years ago. For the present, the JD(U)-RJD combine is depending primarily on the backing of the Yadav, Muslim and Kurmi communities. It needs to step up its efforts to enlarge this support base by bringing in the scheduled castes to take on the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

What has made this task still more difficult for the JD(U) is the presence of Jitan Ram Manjhi. Nitish Kumar had muddied the waters when he first appointed Manjhi as chief minister and then proceeded to oust him in what turned to be an ugly spectacle.

In the process, Nitish Kumar ended up catapulting the otherwise low-key Manjhi to the status of a Dalit leader who is now posing a threat to the Bihar chief minister’s popularity with the mahadalits. There has been some sympathy for Manjhi among the mahadalits after he was booted out unceremoniously by Nitish Kumar. To make matters worse, Manjhi is now firmly in the NDA camp, which believes it has more than a fair chance of winning over the scheduled castes with both Manjhi and Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan in in its fold. The BJP already enjoys the support of the upper castes.

While Nitish Kumar’s strategists will predictably factor these ground realities when drawing up his poll campaign, the Congress did its bit on Friday to demolish the BJP’s claim that it is committed to the emancipation of Dalits.

Wooing the Dalit community

Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal pointed out that in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made several speeches in which he had invoked Ambedkar’s name and declared, “I am confident the coming decade is of Dalits.”

But the BJP, Sibal said, stands exposed as the NDA government has now filed a review petition in the Supreme Court seeking a stay on an earlier judgement upholding reservation in promotion for scheduled caste government employees. The petition is to be heard on Monday.

Accusing the BJP of wooing the Dalit community before the Lok Sabha elections, Sibal said, the ruling party’s duplicity is self-evident.

Sibal’s revelation was clearly aimed at derailing BJP’s campaign to woo the scheduled castes in the Bihar elections. He also attempted to stir up trouble in the NDA camp when he publicly asked Manjhi and Paswan to declare whether they were on board with the Centre’s move.

Congress sources said the BJP’s move is apparently aimed at consolidating its upper caste support base in Bihar as it believes the mahadalits are already in its kitty thanks to Manjhi and Paswan.

In addition to the caste arithmetic, which the NDA believes is in its favour, the BJP is depending on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to sway the fence-sitters, the floating vote, and the youth who are enthralled with the prime minister’s powerful oratory and his development agenda. On his part, Nitish Kumar is also making a serious effort to poach on this constituency.