PATNA: Much is at stake at Sunday's by-elections to three Bihar seats -- one Lok Sabha and two assembly seats -- for both ruling BJP-led NDA and opposition Grand Alliance comprising RJD, Congress and HAM-S, barely a year ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Both National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and Grand Alliance are using the bypolls as an opportunity to prove their superiority over the other in terms of popularity among the masses.
While the NDA leaders are confident that they will win all the three seats, the Grand Alliance leaders have repeatedly claimed to pull out victory even in the absence of their star campaigner and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad -- behind bars in connection with two fodder scam cases.
The by-elections are set to see direct contests between the NDA led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Grand Alliance, which got its third constituent in the Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular (HAM-S) of Jitan Ram Manjhi, who quit the NDA to switch sides.
The bypolls to Jehanabad and Bhabua assembly seats are being held following the death of sitting legislators from the RJD and the BJP, respectively. The Araria Lok Sabha seat became vacant after the death last year of Mohammad Taslimuddin, the sitting RJD MP.
No matter which way the results go, this by-election provide both BJP and RJD an opportunity to take on each other directly in Bihar, as a precursor to parliamentary polls next year when they will also, most likely, be the main opponents. Ever since the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal-United (JD-U) joined the NDA back, the BJP has virtually replaced the former as the main rival to Lalu Prasad's RJD.
This has triggered a debate in the political circles whether Nitish Kumar has accepted the role of a junior partner in state politics. By accepting the BJP offer to contest from Jehannabad, after announcing publicly not to fight the by-elections, the JD-U has given an opportunity to the BJP to prove that it is number one in Bihar NDA.
The BJP also ignored the demand of its other smaller ally in the state, Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) of Union Minister Upendra Kushwaha who was also keen to field his candidate from Jehanabad.
A senior BJP leader said that party has decided in favour of the JD-U to contest from Jehanabad to send a political message that the NDA can accommodate its allies to keep the alliance stable.
"BJP has decided to strengthen NDA to defeat RJD and we will win all three seats," said state BJP spokesperson Rajeev Ranjan.
In a similar fashion, the RJD offered Bhabua seat to the Congress at the last moment "to strengthen the Grand Alliance" as the Congress leaders made public their keenness to contest against the BJP from there.
In Araria Lok Sabha seat, the RJD has fielded Sarfaraz Alam -- son of Taslmiuddin -- who was a sitting legislator of the ruling JD-U. Last month, he left the party, and the assembly, to join the RJD. He is also a former legislator from Jokihat in Araria district.
RJD is hopeful of its traditional support base among Muslim-Yadav (MY) combine along with Dalits, which forms a major chunk of the electorate in Araria. The party is also hoping that Alam would get a chunk of sympathy votes for his father.
On the other hand, BJP nominee Pradeep Kumar Singh is hopeful of support among the upper castes and the extremely backward castes, as he had secured 2.61 lakh votes in 2014 Lok Sabha polls, losing to Taslimuddin who had got 4 lakh votes.
"RJD won last time despite the Narendra Modi wave. But this time, there is no such wave. So, we are sure to post a still bigger voctory this time," RJD spokesperson Shakti Yadav said.
The current bypoll equations are also likely to reflect in the seat-sharing between the BJP and the JD-U for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, said a senior JD-U leader who did not want to be named.
"Nitish Kumar is no more what he used to be, as he has lost his bargaining power after returning to the NDA last year," the JD-U leader said.