NAGPUR, Maharashtra: The ruling Janata Dal (United) in Bihar on Monday officially began its campaign for the state assembly election, to be held in October-November this year, through a virtual rally addressed by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.
Bihar will be the first Indian state to vote in assembly elections since the coronavirus pandemic began. Since traditional, physical modes of campaigning are difficult due to the nature of the highly infectious virus, political parties are being forced to think of new ways to reach voters, especially those without much access to technology.
The ruling JD(U) had pulled out all stops for the rally, claiming before the event that the link of the virtual rally had been sent to around 30 lakh people in Bihar through various channels. In comments to reporters in Patna on Monday morning, Sanjay Jha, Nitish Kumar’s close aide and cabinet minister, had called the virtual rally the “new normal”.
Post the event, the party claimed that the ‘Nishchay Samvad’ was a massive success and that Kumar had managed to reach every nook and corner of the state. One minister told HuffPost India that the streets were empty and “electricity was available”, which meant people were watching the rally.
“I was not in Patna on Monday. I was in my constituency, but from what I saw on the streets when the rally was going on, I can say that it was a success. The streets were empty and electricity was available everywhere and people were watching the rally using whatever link they had access to. There was silence everywhere,” claimed Bihar’s Information and Public Relations Minister and senior JD(U) leader Neeraj Kumar.
“I also took feedback from three districts on the number of people watching it. I was told that women attended it in large numbers. All our active workers watched it because the chief minister directly interacted with them and gave them facts and figures. There was a craze in the common public over this rally. This rally was watched in all parts of the state to the grassroots level because I received messages and photos of people (watching the rally),” Kumar added.
After the rally, Jha tweeted that over 15 lakh people had connected directly with Nishchay Samvad through the party’s online portals, a claim HuffPost India could not independently verify. The number was half of the minister’s estimate before the rally.
The JD(U)’s official Facebook page live-streamed the rally, and had around 281,000 views when the chief minister was speaking.
The two local news channels’ YouTube channels, which aired the rally live, had around 8,000 and 18,000 views during the speech.
JD(U)’s Twitter handle kept tweeting the main points from Kumar’s speech throughout the rally.
However, the party’s much talked about new web portal JDULive.com appeared far from ready even on the day Kumar launched its campaign.
The JD(U) also does not seem to have any popular YouTube channel, unlike its alliance partner BJP, which had begun its virtual campaign as early as June this year.
What did Nitish say?
The rally was held at Karpuri Thakur hall in JD(U) headquarters in Patna in a manner that would seem out of place if a pandemic were not going on.
Only six senior JD(U) leaders, including Kumar and Sanjay Jha, were seated on the podium, which had only one banner. Around 50 people were allowed inside the hall following rules of social distancing.
But Kumar appeared unaffected by the restrictions of the virtual rally and delivered a long speech in which he targeted his main rival and former alliance partner, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family.
Comparing his 15 years’ rule with that of RJD’s preceding 15 years, the chief minister said that Bihar doesn’t need the ‘lantern’ anymore as every corner has electricity now.
Lantern is the election symbol of the RJD.
The Bihar CM also termed the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case as one affecting the “entire nation” and welcomed the CBI inquiry. The actor’s death has been massively politicised by BJP leaders and right-wing news channels ahead of the state election. Over the weekend, news reports said the BJP’s art and culture wing in Bihar has released posters seeking ‘justice’ for the actor, who is from the state.
While the case has dominated discussions on news channels, the jury is still out on whether it will pay off in terms of electoral dividends.
Bihar is also struggling to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the aftermath of the floods this year—the state has reported close to 150,000 cases so far, with around 761 deaths, while more than 83 lakh people were affected by the floods.
While citing numbers to flaunt the development that was done during his tenure in education, infrastructure, and law and order, Kumar also took a jab at a Lalu Prasad family dispute. He criticised Lalu’s family for allegedly ill-treating Aishwarya Rai, the estranged wife of Lalu Prasad’s elder son Tej Pratap.
Aishwarya is the granddaughter of former Bihar CM Daroga Rai and daughter of sitting RJD MLA Chandrika Rai, who recently left the RJD and joined JD(U).
Kumar also defended his decision to ban liquor in the state and declared that the ban will stay as long as he is at the helm of affairs in Bihar.
“Some people might not welcome it but I will keep working. Let them criticise me,” Kumar kept on saying throughout his almost two-hour-long speech.
However, two JD(U) workers, one from the state capital Patna and one from the Gaya district of Bihar, said that the response was less enthusiastic than expected.
“It would be too much to expect people to stick to their TV sets or mobile phones for two-three hours just for a political rally. Actual rally is different and has its craze, where you can see your leader physically. This really felt like just another TV programme,” the JD(U) leader from Gaya told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity.
When some reporters tried to ask him if the rally was a success after its conclusion, the CM folded his hands and said, “ They arranged this so I spoke.”