The balconies that run the length of the Ramlakhan Singh girls’ inter-college in Premraj tehsil are crammed with students in ponytails and salwar kameez. The rooftops that face the college across a playground — where Janata Dal (United) workers and sympathisers jostle for space with the curious — are also filled with only women.
The presence of such a large number of women at a JD(U) meeting is not surprising: for, in his 10 years as Chief Minister, empowering women politically, prioritising education of the girl child and checking crime have ranked high on Nitish Kumar’s agenda.
On Friday, as he makes his election pitch, as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the grand alliance, he does not fail to mention that his government reserved half the panchayat posts for women and provided girl students with cycles, uniforms and money: the last named, he says, has reduced the gap between the two sexes at the Class 9 level to a few thousands.
Now, he continues, if returns to power, he will reserve 35 per cent of government jobs for women.
Mr. Kumar, who has not lost his sheen after a decade in power, is banking on drawing in the women’s vote, as voters of his caste, the Kurmis, make up less than four per cent of the electorate. He is no longer sure of support from the EBCs (extremely backward castes) and the Mahadalits (all Scheduled Castes except the dominant community of Paswans), the two categories he nurtured. The erosion of the EBC support base is largely because of the Jitan Ram Manjhi misadventure and that of the Mahadalits because the National Democratic Alliance is working on their fears that they might be swamped by the powerful Yadavs who are voting in overwhelming numbers for the grand alliance.
“I appeal to all my mothers and sisters here that on October 28, voting day, wake up, get ready and cast your votes,” Mr. Kumar says. “Do your cooking later. And if your men-folk don’t vote for the party of your choice, make them fast for a day.” A ripple of laughter washes over the crowd.
He reserves his ire for Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “The NDA in Bihar has no leader,” he says. “Only the PM. Is the PM planning to become CM? If that’s what he wanted, he shouldn’t have left Gujarat. Next year, there will be panchayat polls here: will those also be fought under him?” People clap and cheer.
“Now, I hear he is cancelling some of his rallies. It appears he is in some difficulty. The entire Union Cabinet is here,” Mr. Kumar says. “Mr. Modi is unconcerned about the country. All he wants is to capture Bihar.”
He justifies dropping Mr. Manjhi as Chief Minister, saying he exercised his judgment as leader, defends his alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal, stresses that the grand alliance stands “united like a rock.”
Looking dapper in his aviator glasses and cream kurta, Mr. Kumar gives a performance that is engaging, if understated, as usual. He is ironic, even acerbic, but never offensive.
Travelling across Bihar, it is hard to find anyone — even those avowedly voting against the grand alliance — who has a harsh word against Mr. Kumar — the worst that even BJP sympathisers say of him is that he has allied himself with the RJD supremo Lalu Prasad and hence, by association, will usher in what is being described as Jungle Raj 2.
If the BJP had built Mr. Kumar up to take on Mr. Lalu Prasad and break the RJD leader’s hold over Bihar, after his break with the BJP, the Chief Minister has achieved almost cult status in the State — combining a clean record, focus on governance, a tight grip on the administration and the political skills needed to stay afloat. Will that record — with a little bit of help from women voters — see him through?