Nitish Kumar: Alone in a battle

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his JD(U) seem set to emerge as the biggest losers in the Bihar election as he fights anti-incumbency and a resurgent opposition alliance, while his ally, the BJP, plays its own games.

Published : Nov 01, 2020 07:30 IST

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressing an election rally in Bhagalpur on October 31.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addressing an election rally in Bhagalpur on October 31.

On October 28, as polling in 71 of Bihar’s 243 Assembly constituencies got under way in the first phase of the State election, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar came across as a pathetic political spectacle. Abandoning the dignified public face that he maintained for most of his four-and-a-half-decade-long political career, the Janata Dal (United) president kowtowed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders shared a stage at a rally in Patna. Praising Modi profusely and thanking him for “taking time out” to campaign, he begged the audience to listen to Modi’s appeal and vote him back to power. “If you give the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] one more chance, then you can be sure he [Modi] will transform the State. Bihar will march ahead,” Nitish Kumar said.

He said that the Prime Minister’s efforts to control the COVID-19 situation were exceptional and that people were coming out for rallies only to listen to “Yugpurush” Modi. Conspicuously, he refrained from making laudatory references to his own uninterrupted 15-year stint as Chief Minister. This cringing, self-effacing performance left many JD(U) leaders and activists thoroughly embarrassed. At least half a dozen of them told Frontline that this meeting could well be rated among the lowest points in Nitish Kumar’s political career. A senior party leader said: “It is as though the once imperious leader has admitted his marginalisation and fall.”

Nitish Kumar was a commanding political figure in almost all elections in Bihar between 2005 and 2015 as either the most influential leader or at least one of the most influential. The last two Assembly elections, in 2010 and 2015, virtually revolved around his political and individual personality and the governance and political initiatives that he had made. In the parliamentary election of 2009 and in the 2010 Assembly election, he had actually told the BJP that Modi, who was then Gujarat Chief Minister, should not campaign for the coalition in Bihar. This, although his party was a member of the NDA and the BJP was the senior partner at the national level. His position was that Modi had presided over the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat as the Chief Minister of the State and that his campaigning would be counterproductive for the NDA in Bihar. The BJP was compelled to accept this diktat, given Nitish Kumar’s clout in State politics. Also read:Nitish Kumar's flip-flops and fall

In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP chose Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, Nitish Kumar took his party out of the NDA and contested the election independently. The JD(U) was routed in that election. But a year later, Nitish Kumar joined hands with long-time political adversary Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress, and that coalition swept the 2015 Assembly elections. At that time, Nitish Kumar declared that he was committed to working for a “Sangh-mukt” Bharat. The promise was that he would fight the Hindutva forces led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of the BJP. Such proclamations did not last long. In about a year and a half, Nitish Kumar broke off from the alliance with the RJD and the Congress and returned to the NDA, making sure that he was once again anointed as Chief Minister.

Dealing with discontent

Nitish Kumar’s political dominance in Bihar is now a thing of the past. The ground for his obsequiousness at the October 28 election meeting was laid in rally after rally where sections of the audience railed at him on various counts − mismanagement of the COVID situation, the migrant workers crisis that followed the badly planned lockdown, and his government’s overall inability to generate sufficient employment. Interestingly, these expressions of public discontent were primarily aimed at Nitish Kumar and not at Modi or the BJP. This rather nuanced public sentiment has been reflected in the position adopted by the Lok Janshkati Party (LJP), which is now headed by Ram Vilas Paswan’s son Chirag Paswan. The LJP left the NDA in Bihar while continuing to be a part of it at the national level. Its proclaimed intent is to fight against all JD(U) candidates and ensure that Nitish Kumar does not come back as Chief Minister. It has also made clear its support for the BJP. The LJP’s position is in a sense true to its reputation as a political weathercock. This was the political background that culminated in Nitish Kumar’s pitiable political show of October 28 amid fervent chants of “Modi, Modi” from the crowd.

Whether Nitish Kumar’s kowtowing to Modi will revive his political fortunes is the question that is being asked within the JD(U) ranks and among political observers. A senior JD(U) leader said, “There are more sceptics than believers on the viability of this line.” Developments on the ground uphold this point of view. The signals from the BJP leadership as well as the party’s rank and file also make it clear that with each passing day the saffron party is increasing its distance from the JD(U). Senior BJP leaders still parrot the line that Nitish Kumar is their chief ministerial candidate. But the way the campaign is progressing is very much reminiscent of the last election in Jharkhand where by the time the final hour arrived, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate, Raghubar Das, had disappeared completely from the party’s posters and hoardings. It was only about Modi and the BJP there. The same symptoms are visible in Bihar now. With evident signs of an anti-incumbency wave against Nitish Kumar, his pictures have gone missing from the BJP’s posters and hoardings. It is all about the BJP and Modi once again. The two parties are running parallel campaigns, with no overlap. Except for the Prime Minister, who addressed two meetings with Nitish Kumar, no senior BJP leader has addressed any JD(U) rally. Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi was the only one who was seen going around with Nitish Kumar. But ever since he was hospitalised with COVID, Nitish Kumar has had to fend for himself. Also read:Lessons from the Bihar Assembly Elections

According to political observers, the BJP has sensed that while its own voter base of mainly upper-caste Hindus is intact, that of Nitish Kumar—comprising members of his own Kurmi caste, besides sections of non-Yadav Backward Classes, Dalits, Mahadalits, Most Backward Castes, and a small segment of Muslims, particularly Dalit Muslims—is substantially eroded. A senior advocate in Patna, who is also active in the LJP, said: “There is a visible shift in Nitish Kumar’s support base. There are many factors responsible for this. First and foremost, his betrayal of the people’s mandate of 2015: he ditched the Mahagathbandhan and joined hands with the BJP to form the government. Then, his poor governance record this time and his complete failure in handling the corona crisis, especially the migrants’ issues, have turned people against him.”

According to him, with the erosion of Nitish Kumar’s support base, BJP supporters, who had voted enthusiastically for the Chief Minister in 2005 and 2010, are now wary of voting for him. An important factor is that Nitish Kumar’s prohibition policy, a huge draw in past elections, has now completely turned the people against him. Prohibition has spawned a liquor mafia in the State, and illegal sale of liquor, at high prices, is rampant. Since consumption of liquor has not stopped, the poor are hit hard. They either pay a higher price or buy from unscrupulous liquor mafia and sometimes end up as victims of spurious liquor. The issue has united people across caste and class divides. A BJP sympathiser in Patna said: “The well off, mostly BJP supporters, do not want Nitish Kumar to come back and want a shot of power for the BJP on its own. The poor do not want him because he has failed on all fronts.”

The LJP factor

While BJP leaders and workers air these views in private, Chirag Paswan’s campaign raises the same issues in an assertive and forthright manner. He advocates the idea of a BJP-led government in Bihar. The LJP, interestingly, has fielded a large number of upper-caste candidates. This has given BJP supporters an alternative in seats contested by the JD(U). Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a seasoned psephologist, observed: “This is definitely going to hurt the JD(U) in many seats. Chirag Paswan may not win too many seats on his own, maybe four or five at the most, but he will definitely damage the JD(U)’s chances in 10 to 15 seats.” He said that the political equations among NDA constituents in Bihar had given an obvious advantage to the BJP, which could emerge as the single largest party. But in that scenario, who will become the Chief Minister? If Nitish Kumar falls far too short of the numbers, will he accept the top post? Sanjay Kumar said: “The BJP leadership believes that the situation will be such that he will not. For public consumption, however, because so many senior leaders have said that in public, they would offer him the post, but the verdict would be such that he would be compelled to decline. If not, they could also engineer some sort of internal revolt within the local BJP unit against Nitish Kumar, making him refuse the top post on his own.” Also read:Chirag Paswan interview during Bihar 2020 polls campaign

Tejashwi and his jobs agenda

Sanjay Kumar also said that the divided NDA house was making the Mahagathbandhan appear stronger by the day. He was of the view that the young RJD leader, Tejashwi Yadav, had emerged as a confident and mature politician. “He speaks the language of the people. His single-point focus on employment has actually caught the attention of the youth who have only seen unemployment grow phenomenally during the last 15 years of Nitish Kumar rule. This is a section that does not remember what the BJP calls the ‘jungle raj’ of Lalu Prasad. This section is definitely listening to Tejashwi.”

There is a perception among NDA politicians in the State that Nitish Kumar has been losing his cool in public rallies essentially because he realises that the voter mood is undergoing an intense churning and that there is a significant shift towards the Mahagathbandhan. Several political observers also talk of his unease with his alliance partner, the BJP; he senses that something may be cooking behind his back. A senior journalist in Patna said: “He may also be irritated by the way a young politician like Chirag Paswan is going hammer and tongs at him and BJP leaders are rallying around to defend him.”

Modi has stressed at public meetings that he has worked with Nitish Kumar for only three and a half years, a comment that reinforces the perception that the BJP has been distancing itself from the JD(U) leader. Modi’s comment was the cue for BJP leaders in Bihar. For them, the important thing is to make people believe that the Prime Minister will deliver on his promises in the next five years, and in this discourse there is no mention of Nitish Kumar. Bihar BJP chief Sanjay Jaiswal said: “The biggest challenge for us is to convince the people of Bihar that we will deliver on all promises that the Prime Minister has made.” Also read:Tejashwi Yadav: Formidable foeman

A hung verdict?

Reports from the ground suggest that Congress candidates have done surprisingly well in attracting upper-caste votes in the seats that went to polls on October 28. This renewed interest in the Congress in a section of the upper castes has raised some concerns within the BJP’s State leadership. The majority view in the State BJP, however, is that the party will easily emerge as the single largest party. But a small section of BJP leaders told Frontline that the Mahagathbandhan’s performance in the first round of polling was better than expected and that the BJP would emerge as the single largest party only by a small margin. (The next two rounds of polling are slotted for November 3 and 7.)

Increasingly, there is talk of the elections returning a hung verdict. Earlier in the campaign, the BJP and JD(U) leaderships were confident of sailing through despite the LJP’s departure and the adverse popular sentiments over the government’s COVID management. Speaking to Frontline in early September, JD(U) leader Sanjay Jha said: “Indeed, there are issues, and a 15-year stint is bound to generate some amount of voter fatigue. There is also some anti-incumbency and people are expressing their displeasure. But we are certain of one thing: it is not as bad as the situation that Lalu Prasad faced in 2005 after his 15-year stint.” Sanjay Jha continues to maintain this view. But after the first phase of polling, several leaders in both the BJP and the JD(U) are not so confident. Also read:Interview with the Bihar BJP chief

Leaders of the Mahaghatbandhan, Tejashwi Yadav in particular, are evidently gaining confidence. The senior journalist and political observer Kanhaiya Bhelari pointed out that Nitish Kumar’s pathetic public performance on October 28 has sharpened the “bite” of Tejashwi Yadav’s characterisation of the Chief Minister as a “tired, old, forlorn man”. “The public sides with Tejashwi Yadav’s remark completely. So much so that even those who supported and lauded Nitish Kumar’s track record as Chief Minister have started saying that Sachin Tendulkar was a good player in his time but when he gets old he must retire and make way for the Virat Kohlis of this world,” Bhelari told Frontline.

With speculation growing about a hung Assembly, leaders of both the NDA and the Mahagathbandhan admit that political forces like the LJP and the Grand Democratic Secular Front (GDSF) led by the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP), a former NDA constituent, could tilt the balance between the two main contending coalitions in as many 55 seats. The GDSF is a coalition of six smaller parties—the RLSP, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Suhaldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP), the Samajwadi Janata Dal Democratic led by the former RJD MP Devendra Yadav, and the Janatantrik Party (Socialist). The alliance can potentially influence the overall election result.

Overall, the GDSF is expected to garner around 10 per cent of the votes. Its leaders feel that in a tight contest this will be enough for it to play kingmaker. In the 2015 Assembly election, the RLSP had got over 3.6 per cent of the votes, winning two seats, and the BSP a little over 2 per cent, without winning any. The RLSP is contesting 104 seats this time; the BSP, 80; and the AIMIM, 20. The RLSP’s pockets of influence are Aurangabad, Kaimur, Rohtas, East Champaran, Buxar, Shekhpura, Jamui and Munger. The AIMIM has pockets of influence in the Seemanchal region, from where it won the Kishanganj byelection in October 2019. Though the general belief is that the GDSF would hurt the Mahaghatbandhan more, observers like Bhelari say that it could harm the JD(U), too.

Clearly, from the look of things after the first phase of polling and the campaign for the remaining two, the biggest loser in this election is bound to be the JD(U). The question as to who is the bigger gainer still awaits a clear answer. It could be either the BJP or the RJD. However, the BJP’s confidence level seems to have peaked early, while that of the RJD and its allies in the Mahaghatbandhan seems to be rising steadily. Also read:How Nitish Kumar came out as the winning loser on result day

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