Silao, a small urban settlement with a population of slightly more than 20,000 in Nalanda district, is like any another small town in Bihar, albeit with a difference.
Roads here do not double as garbage collection centres and the ubiquitous paan stain is conspicuous by its absence in its lanes. The reason: unlike any other town or city in the state, capital Patna included, municipal workers clean up twice a day here.
"Everybody is busy with elections for the Legislative Council today. Municipal workers did not come in the morning to clean the streets. Otherwise, they come every day," says Manoranjan Kumar, a sweet shop owner in Silao.
Just a few kilometres away, the district town of Nalanda looks neat and clean. There is no encroachment on roads, traffic movement is orderly, there is no haggling with tourists and a helping hand is never far. Nalanda is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's home district, and the orderliness here perhaps reflects his style of governance.
Former chief minister and Nitish Kumar's political rival Lalu Prasad's home district, Chapra, offers a picture in contrast. The lanes there are a driver's nightmare, the stench of garbage is a permanent feature, encroachment on roads is a norm and traffic follows the policy of might is right. Chaos on Chapra roads is perhaps reminiscent of Lalu's rule in Bihar.
As Lok Sabha elections approach, the two leaders of Bihar, who together have ruled the state for nearly two-and-a-half decades, seem to be on the backfoot. Poll arithmetic and ground reports give an edge to Lalu's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) over Kumar's Janata Dal (United). "I collected feedback from as many as 10 Lok Sabha constituencies and my understanding is the real fight is between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and RJD," says an editor with a widely circulated Patna-based Hindi daily who refused to be named.
Does this signal the end of Kumar's era in Bihar? Is Lalu on the comeback trail? Is there any danger of Nalanda becoming like Chapra all over again? The situation on the ground does suggest an erosion in Kumar's popularity. Even in Nalanda, he is getting a tough fight from BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi.
An elderly gentleman enters a tea stall in Biharsharif, a town in Nalanda district, with a group of his supporters and makes the unusual request of renaming the shop NaMo Tea Stall. Binda, the shop's owner and a Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) member, does not agree, but listens to the old man's advice. "Modi is the country's future. He is the only one who save us from Congress misrule. Voting for anyone else means voting for a continuation of the misrule?" the old man says.
In a land where people have so far voted their caste, Kumar's JD (U) seems to have lost more groups than it could add. In the last Lok Sabha elections, JD (U), together with BJP, got the bulk of upper caste, Kurmi-Koeris, most backward classes (MBCs), a large section of Dalits and some minority votes. These groups constitute 13 per cent, nine per cent, 37 per cent, 12 per cent and 17 per cent of the state's electorate, respectively. The upper castes, since then, have switched over to BJP, the minority vote is uncertain, and a section of the MBCs is getting tilting towards BJP. JD (U)'s support base, therefore, has shrunk considerably. "Many people blame Kumar for the break-up of the BJP and JD (U) alliance. They see this as Kumar's desperate attempt to win minority votes. This has alienated a section of his traditional voters," says Rakesh Ranjan who teaches political science at Patna University.
Some commentators, however, still see JD (U) springing a surprise. They say targeted schemes for Dalits, women and MBCs can still win votes for the party. They also say Muslims are likely to vote en masse for JD (U). "The feeling among Muslims is Kumar has put the survival of his government at stake to distance himself from Modi. How can they not vote for him?" asks D M Diwakar, director of the Patna-based AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies.
Kumar, too, seems to be betting big on minority votes. A political leader who met him recently is convinced the Muslim vote for JD (U) could be a game changer. 'The surveys and polls have not factored this in. All predictions will prove wrong,' Kumar is believed to have told the leader.
Lalu, on the other hand, seems to be making a comeback. He is assured of getting votes from Yadavs, who constitute nearly 14 per cent of the state's population. He, too, is betting big on Muslim votes. "The combination has given him a head start in many constituencies," says the Patna-based editor of the Hindi daily. Some strong local leaders are likely to help Lalu's cause. N K Singh, a Modi sympathiser from the Maharajganj Lok Sabha constituency, says local RJD candidate Prabhunath Singh has nursed his constituency well and is likely to get votes from many groups. "I know many upper caste people and Muslims who will vote for the RJD here. And, he will get a majority of Yadav votes, too," says Singh, a retired army jawan.
RJD seems to be in a comfortable position in adjoining Saran, where Lalu's wife Rabri Devi is contesting, and Siwan, where Hina Shahaba is the RJD candidate. The RJD is hopeful of a better show in the Kosi region that includes constituencies like Madhepura, Supaul and Purnea, owing to support it expects to get from Yadavs and Muslims.
However, not all is lost for Kumar. Opinion polls indicate his popularity as chief minister is high. They also indicate if Assembly elections are held now, he will win a majority on his own. Manoranjan Kumar and Vishnu Dayal Sharma of Nalanda district say whatever be the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections, Kumar will sweep the Assembly elections.
"The state and its people still need Kumar as the chief minister for many more years," they add, A range of people Business Standard spoke to in five Lok Sabha constituencies are of the view that they may vote for other parties in the Lok Sabha elections, but will prefer Kumar's JD (U) in the Assembly elections.