ISLAMPUR/PATNA: It's a twin challenge for Chief Minister Nitish Kumar -- retaining power in Bihar and keeping his party's top position within the ruling alliance -- but a sense of uneasiness seems to be creeping in, including in his home district Nalanda.
While trying to keep the crowd engaged till the chief minister arrives for his election rally, one after another speaker has a common urge for the party's traditional support base of Dalits and extremely backwards that they should not get "misled" by the opposition and keep their faith in Kumar.
Their plea underscores the task before the ruling JD(U) -- that is to rally its traditional base of voters around Kumar in his twin fight.
The EBCs, which comprise of numerous small castes, account for around 28-30 per cent of the state's population, and the Nitish Kumar government has wooed them over the years with various initiatives.
Though they are not as politically active as some other castes, a section of EBCs has traditionally backed the JD(U), while so has been the case with 'Mahadalits' -- a term for scheduled castes except for Paswans, who make up for around one-third of Dalits in the state.
Political watchers believe there is an erosion in the support of upper castes for the JD(U), though they remain strongly behind its ally BJP, and its task has become all the more difficult in several seats due to Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party putting up its candidates against Kumar's party across the state.
Organisationally never as strong as the BJP or the RJD, the JD(U) has relied on the "sushashan babu" image of Kumar to power its politics, and it is this mojo of the chief minister, which has dimmed now, critics say.
"Nitish ji to kaam kiye hain. Lekin abhi badlaav ka hawa hai (Nitish has worked but there is a buzz of change," Ranjan Ram says in a typical local accent.
Asked if he will vote for change, he says he has not decided yet.
"He has built roads and given us electricity. But we need roti (employment) too. Why no new industry has come to Bihar?" asks Akash Kumar, a first-year undergraduate student.
Higher education is in such a sorry state that his Part-I examination has not been held even in more than two years, he says. What good is all this talk of good governance when even Patna suffered so much of flood in 2019, his friend Amarendra Singh says.
Most of Kumar's achievements, be it boosting girls enrolment in schools, empowering women with quota in local polls and jobs or augmenting road network, trace their origins to his earlier terms in power, and his initiatives like prohibition in his latest tenure do not seem to be eliciting many positive vibes on the ground.
"The one who sells liquor has become 'malamal' (rich) while the one who drinks has become kangaal (pauper)," Ranjan Paswan, a hawker says, complaining that liquor is easily available in the black market at a higher price.
"The rich people drink in their homes comfortably and the drunken poor is caught on the road by police and harassed," he says.
The JD(U) has, however, pinned its hopes on woman voters, arguing that their life has improved due to the absence of liquor-induced domestic and even public brawls. The election results will not only determine the fate of Nitish Kumar-led government but also the standing of his party in the NDA.
The JD(U) has been winning more seats than the BJP in assembly elections, but there is a view that this may change in these polls. The JD(U) is fighting on 115 and the BJP on 110 seats in the elections to the 243-seat Bihar assembly with their two smaller allies contesting on the remainder 18.
While the BJP has asserted that Kumar will again be chief minister irrespective of the number of seats the two parties win if the NDA gets a majority, but a drastic difference in their tallies in favour of the saffron party may realign the power equation within the alliance forever.