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Tejashwi Yadav's aggressive challenge opens up Bihar's poll fight

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Patna, Oct 27: As Bihar readies for the first phase of voting on Wednesday, the NDA's sweep of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls appears to be a distant memory with the RJD-led opposition mounting a spirited fight against the nearly 15-year-old rule of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

Tejashwi Yadavs aggressive challenge opens up Bihars poll fight

The ruling alliance and the incumbent chief minister, on the other hand, are repeatedly referring to what they call the 15-year misrule under the earlier RJD regime from 1990-2005.

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Opposition's chief ministerial candidate Tejashwi Yadav's attack on Kumar over issues of "unemployment and corruption" and offer of "ummeed aur badlaav" (hope and change) seems to have struck a chord with a section of voters, opening up the electoral battle which many believed was done and dusted in the ruling alliance's favour till a few months back. Seventy one seats in the southern and parts of central Bihar are going to the polls in the first phase of the elections to the 243-seat state assembly.

The National Democratic Alliance, which also has Jitan Ram Manjhi's HAM(S) and Mukesh Sahani's Vikassheel Insaan Party besides the BJP and the JD(U) in its fold, hold 37 of these constituencies, while the 'mahagathbandhan' of RJD-Congress-Left has 34 sitting seats in the first phase.

When the two alliances had last squared off against each other in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the NDA had won 39 of 40 Lok Sabha seats and over 53 per cent of votes, while the opposition could only win one seat and manage barely 30 per cent of votes. Since then, a couple of smaller parties from the opposition camp, which has been joined by the CPI(ML) and two other Left parties, has switched to the NDA, while Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party has broken away from the ruling alliance to fight on its own.

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As the pivot of the polls has shifted from national to local issues, and Kumar's stewardship of the state and not Prime Minister Narendra Modi's leadership of the country came into focus during the assembly poll campaign, the opposition has sniffed a chance. "This election is between Bihar and Nitish Kumar. The trend of the election is very clear. People want change," RJD spokesperson Manoj Jha says.

The mood in the ruling JD(U) camp is of cautious optimism, as the party's task has become more difficult in many seats due to the challenge from the LJP, which is not contesting against the BJP. JD(U) general secretary Afaque Ahmad says the people of Bihar are politically astute and will back Kumar whose work is all about "good governance and development".

Asked about the big crowds Yadav is drawing as he goes after Kumar, he does not accord it much importance. He says Ram Manohar Lohia, a socialist icon and then the most vocal critic of Jawaharlal Nehru, used to attract a huge audience when he fought against the first prime minister from Phulpur in 1962.

"Lohia Ji still lost badly. There is no match between Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav. Kumar will again be chief minister," Ahmad says. NDA sources point out that the gap between their alliance and the RJD-led opposition has always been too big, and asserted that it will be hard to bridge.

Various opinion polls have suggested that the NDA will get a majority and the opposition alliance may fall short of the three-digit mark while highlighting the much narrower difference in vote share -- from 6-8 per cent -- between the two groupings compared to the Lok Sabha polls.

The RJD camp believes that it has gained among Dalit votes with its alliance with the CMI(ML), the strongest of the Left parties in the state, while the NDA has been hit by Paswan deserting it. Yadav's promise of several sops, including 10 lakh government jobs, for the youth, and his focus on the alleged petty bureaucratic corruption under the Kumar government has swayed a large section of youths, his party argues, expressing confidence that the momentum is in its favour.

With the 30-year-old scion of the jailed RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav's family often mocking Kumar (69) as a "tired" leader who needs rest, the incumbent chief minister has been spending a considerable part of his poll speeches in reminding voters of the party's alleged misrule between 1990-2005 and the changes he has ushered since then.

"What was there? Did they (Lalu and wife Rabri Devi who replaced him as CM) build any school, any hospital? Could your daughter go out after dusk fell?" he asked people at a rally on Monday.

Kumar is credited with restoring law and order after coming to power in 2005 and heralding a focus on development projects, an agenda that has won him three successive victories in the assembly polls. The opposition, however, has sought to build a campaign over the perceived anti-incumbency against his 15 years of rule and to put him on the defensive over lack of employment in what remains a poor and backward state, his handling of the recent migrant crisis and alleged corruption to argue that the state needs new leadership.

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    Many ruling alliance's leaders have cited Tejashwi's lack of formal education, he has studied till class nine, to attack his leadership credentials. Political circles in Patna are abuzz with various theories about a hint of anger and asperity in the speeches of Kumar, generally known for his measured words, as he hops across the state to fend off the challenge and seeks one more term to carry out his development agenda.

    Modi had held three rallies on October 23 and is likely to speak at nine more in the days ahead including three on Wednesday, seeking to consolidate votes in the favour of the NDA.

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