Gandhi Maidan, known as Patna Lawns during colonial times, is a sprawling space, impressive when filled to capacity. Perhaps that explains why it’s the measure of the mobilisation strength of political parties and civil society groups when they seek to mark their presence in the state capital.
It’s too huge to be filled by even mass rallies. Old-timers in the city recall that even in the heyday of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement in the 1970s, which originated from this ground in the heart of the city, the ground wasn’t fully occupied.
Eight months before the forthcoming Bihar Assembly poll, the ground has started witnessing a flurry of political activities.
On Thursday, Communist Party of India leader and former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, concluded his "Jan Gan Man Yatra" across 38 districts in the state with a rally at Gandhi Maidan. Along with leaders of other Left parties like the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), he was joined on the stage by an assortment of leaders from the Grand Alliance parties in Bihar: the Congress, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, and the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular). Civil society activists joined too, including Medha Patekar, Shabnam Hashmi, Sadaf Zafar, Kannan Gopinathan, and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, Tushar Gandhi.
The poll messaging couldn’t be missed even though the rally was generically positioned as a “Samvidhan Bachao, Nagrikta Bachao” rally (Save Constitution, save citizenship). While expressing their opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens, the speakers were careful to show their patriotic credentials by waving the national flag and singing the national anthem.
Kanhaiya fumbled over some lines of the national anthem — a gaffe for which he was on social media.
With the Nitish Kumar-led state government endorsing the CAA but rejecting the NRC in the state, the attack was blunted to an extent, even though Kanhaiya demanded that the state government issue a gazette notification to stop the National Population Register exercise in the state. With an eye on the state polls, Grand Alliance speakers made general remarks on the unemployment scene too.
A section of political observers in Bihar saw the rally as a show of strength by the CPI-led Left front in the state to have better seat-share chances in negotiations with the constituent parties of the Grand Alliance. However, what could be a spoiler for the Left parties is the fact that the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the spearhead of the Grand Alliance in the state, seemed to distance itself from the rally as none of its representatives could be seen at the event.
While the Kanhaiya-led rally was underway in Patna, the leader of the Opposition in the state, Tejashwi Yadav, was addressing a crowd at Sherghati in Gaya district as part of the RJD’s “Berozgari Hatao Yatra”. With a ragbag of issues — ranging from concerns over unemployment in the state to his party’s opposition to the CAA — Yadav also seemed a bit restrained in his language against Janata Dal (United) chief and chief minister Nitish Kumar, as the political equations in the state are still fluid with possibilities of realignment.
However, he assailed the state government about joblessness, and cited statistics to defend the oft-criticised performance of the economy and governance when the RJD was in power.
Within the ruling National Democratic Alliance government, the Lok Janshakti Party national president, Chirag Paswan, embarked on a “Bihar first, Bihari first” yatra that, after covering different districts of the state, will culminate in a rally on April 14 at Gandhi Maidan in Patna.
With a theme centred on a blend of development and regional pride, the Paswan scion is trying to carve a distinct niche for the party among the aspirational youth and beyond its appeal among Dusadh Dalits. These elections also offer an opportunity to Chirag to firmly grasp the mantle of the party leadership and come into his own. After all, his father, Ram Vilas Paswan, has been finding ways for decades to deal with changing political equations and retain his electoral sway over a section of the electorate.
In the midst of all this, it’s the build-up to the JD(U)’s rally on Sunday that is visible on the numerous street hoardings in the state capital. Being advertised as a rally of party workers from all corners of the state, the event will be watched with interest by political observers to analyse the hints Nitish Kumar might publicly drop for the party’s future trajectory in retaining or changing alliance partners. In all probability, he will be circumspect in revealing that too early in the fluid stage of state politics. However, his language will be scrutinised for the possibilities that he might be open too.
It’s the nature of such possibilities that has left his NDA ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, grappling with an uncertain phase of alliance politics in Bihar. In his visit to the state on February 22, the party national president, Jagat Prakash Nadda, inaugurated 11 new party offices in different districts. Nadda asked workers to fight the Opposition’s misinformation campaign on the CAA, and urged them to educate people about the real nature of the Act and its benefits. He also exhorted them to spread the message about the benefits of the Centre’s welfare and development programmes.
The party plans to have a well-oiled organisational machinery in all 38 districts and aims at setting up permanent office buildings in all district headquarters of Bihar. The state BJP president, Dr Sanjay Jaiswal, has been touring different districts to take stock of organisational preparedness. The party seems to be bracing for any eventuality: allying with JD(U) if the latter retains its association with the NDA, or even without it, if Nitish Kumar opts out of the alliance.
These rallies and statewide campaign tours by different stakeholders of Bihar politics have given an early momentum to what will be a long campaign season for the Assembly poll. As the host to many such mobilisations for obtaining or retaining power, Gandhi Maidan is certainly gearing for hectic months ahead.