What does a low turnout of people at NDA’s ‘Sankalp Rally’ mean?

Is this a breather for Nitish in NDA?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds a conch while Chief Minister looks on during National Democratic Alliance's ‘Sankalp Rally’ at Gandhi Maidan in Patna,Sunday,March 3, 2019. Also seen is LJP chief Ram Vilas Paswan.

By Dheeraj Kumar in Patna & Deepak Parvatiyar in New Delhi

In 2014, the Janata Dal (United) had contested the Lok Sabha election in Bihar without entering into any alliance and although it had won only 2 seats, it had secured 16.4 percent vote share against Bharatiya Janata Party`s 29.86 percent vote share. The BJP had then bagged 22 seats in the state. The National Democratic Alliance ally, Ram Vilas Paswan led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) had won six seats with the vote share of 6.40 percent.

The JD (U) which had walked out from NDA in 2013 in protest against projection of Narendra Modi as NDA`s prime ministerial candidate returned to the alliance in 2017 after the JD(U)-Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress grand alliance in Bihar collapsed over corruption charges on RJD chief Lalu Prasad`s son Tejaswi Yadav who was JD(U) Chief and state Chief Minister Nitish Kumar`s deputy in the grand alliance government.

Yet Nitish’s return to the NDA fold was much seen by his detractors as well as some in his own party including senior leader Sharad Yadav (who was subsequently expelled from the party by Nitish) as an act of expedient politics. Nitish was seen uncomfortable in the grand alliance where the terms were apparently dictated by the RJD supremo Lalu.

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But ever since his return to the NDA fold, Nitish was struggling to get a firm foothold in face of the charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Finally he could sense an opportunity in the much hyped NDA`s ‘Sankalp Rally’ addressed by Modi on March 3, 2019, where Nitish too addressed the crowd.

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It was quite surprising that the rally had evoked turn out less than expectations of NDA leaders at a time when the mood in BJP camp was on upswing after IAF`s air strike on terrorist camps in Pakistan post-Pulwama attack. Half of Gandhi Maidan was empty. The low turnout had even prompted Lalu making a mockery of the show — “Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar and Paswan used the government machinery at their disposal to draw crowds to Gandhi Maidan, but managed to get only the numbers that come to meet me when I stop my vehicle at a paan shop,” Yadav’s office tweeted from his official handle.

The Turnout at Sankalp Rally

So does this lesser-than-expected turn out at the rally hint at the fault lines existing at the ground level even as leaders of BJP and JD (U) grasping hands of each other firmly at public platforms?

It also reflects on the complacency of the BJP that it could not gather as much crowd at the rally as it promised.

This now gives a scope to Nitish to be more assertive and demonstrate the JD(U)’s organisational strength before the impending Lok Sabha elections. As party insiders point out, the JD (U) had indeed been wary of the BJP rushing with credit for Sankalp Rally success but since the crowd turnout was tepid, it well have helped the former that had been privately raising doubts on ‘famed’ organisational structure of the BJP. For obvious political reasons, Nitish would like to prove himself as the big brother in the NDA coalition in Bihar. His party, the JD (U) as well as the BJP, both are contesting on 17 seats each. Much beyond that, the 2019 poll result will also chart course of 2020 Bihar Assembly election in which JD (U) hopes to be ‘real’ big brother, so that Nitish again returns as the Chief Minister.

Meanwhile, Nitish at the moment is a necessity too for the BJP. The BJP is looking to compensate tangible deficit in the Narendra Modi wave of 2014 by banking on somewhat unblemished image of Modi to return to power after Lok Sabha election. In Bihar, which has 40 Lok Sabha seats, the NDA banks on Nitish’s development cries to good effect, and again hopes for combination of social extremes or ‘rainbow coalition’ as once famously called by union minister and senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley.

So more notably Prime Minister Modi clapped when Nitish highlighted his government`s performance at length. None was surprised either when Nitish did seek to underscore his importance in BJP`s scheme of things while addressing the Sankalp Rally, and charted out his government’s various development schemes after listing out some of Modi government`s ambitious schemes.

The Sankalp Rally did effectively demonstrate the symbiotic relationship that Modi and Nitish are trying to build up for electoral gain in Bihar. Modi is aware of the fact that the BJP lost its two allies in Bihar- former union minister Upendra Kushwaha led Rashtriya Lok Samata Party and former chief minister Jeetan Ram Manjhi in Bihar. This does give Nitish the leverage point. More notably, even Modi at the moment realises the importance of Nitish to the BJP’s scheme of things. Hence Modi’s outreach also demonstrates BJP`s readiness to concede adequate space for JD (U) in its game plan to bag as many number of seats from Bihar as possible in its ultimate objective of regaining power.

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So as for now, can Nitish grab the opportunities and prove his detractors, who were relentlessly writing his obituaries after his joining hands with Modi, wrong?

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Nitish does know the compulsions of BJP very well, not finding it wrong to become assertive whenever the situation suits it. Hence,  just a day later, the JD (U) formed a three member committee to take a decision whether JD (U) should contest election outside Bihar in upcoming Lok Sabha election. The party leaders went on to further claim that the JD(U)’s alliance with the BJP was confined to Bihar and so it was independent to contest elections in other states.

Of course, the Sankalp Rally was well Nitish’s time of reckoning. But now he also has to prove a point to Lalu too!

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