Janata Dal (United)

Bihar Assembly Election | Nitish Kumar, the winning loser

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Nitish Kumar, Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) president, arrives after the electoral victory at the party’s office in Patna on November 12. Photo: PTI

Addressing a rally in Madhepura district on November 2. Photo: ANI

Women supporters watch Nitish Kumar’s address on a screen during a virtual rally, in Patna on September 7. He has successfully created a constituency of women for himself over the years. Photo: PTI

After a pyrrhic victory that brought it to the third position in the Assembly elections, the Janata Dal (United) under Nitish Kumar is trying to regain its confidence.

Nitish Kumar must be feeling like the lion who is old and bruised but still manages to hold sway over its opponents and beat them at their own game. After an election season in which he was battered from all sides, including his own allies, he is poised to become the Chief Minister of Bihar for yet another term. In a political career spanning nearly half a century—he joined the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan in 1974—he has held the Chief Minister’s post seven times.

He battled a massive anti-incumbency wave to steer the Janata Dal (United) to a win in 43 seats. With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 74 and four each of the Vikassheel Insaan Party and the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular), the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has managed to scrape through in 125 seats in the 243-member Assembly.

The anger of the voters and his unpopularity were palpable during the campaign. To his credit, he survived the uncharitable monikers bestowed upon him by the media. Some called him “diminished”, others “lonely”. Some wrote off his political career and predicted the JD(U)’s demise. Hailed not long ago as the Chanakya of Bihar and “sushasan” (good governance) Babu, Nitish Kumar had to face insults from the media as well as Bihar’s voters. Onions and slippers were thrown at him in election rallies and his speeches disrupted on several occasions. Such was the pessimism in the JD(U) camp that the party’s national spokesperson K.C. Tyagi nearly conceded defeat while counting was still on. He told the media: “We were not defeated by the RJD [Rashtriya Janata Dal]. We were defeated by nature’s curse. We are trailing only because of COVID-19. The migrant crisis thrown up by the pandemic was not only our fault to be blamed for. We are paying for the past 70 years of bad policies and deterioration in Bihar.”

However, in the ultimate gambit, the NDA won and Nitish remains its chosen Chief Minister candidate.
Also read: Nitish Kumar: Alone in a battle

Changed dynamics in the NDA coalition

After the results were declared, Nitish Kumar tweeted: “The people are paramount. I am grateful to the people for giving the NDA a majority. I thank Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his continuing support.”

For the first time in Bihar, the BJP won a far greater number of seats than the JD(U), reducing it to the third position. The JD(U)’s tally of 43, down from 71 in 2015, is its worst performance since the 2005 Assembly elections.

This drastically changes the fortunes of Nitish Kumar and the JD(U) in Bihar. Already, the media is talking of Nitish Kumar’s reservations about taking on the Chief Minister’s mantle given his party’s below-par performance. Political observers predict that while the NDA might need Nitish Kumar at the helm for the moment, six months or so down the line, the party might not think twice about dumping him and installing its candidate at the top post. Bihar remains one of the few States where the BJP has been ruling in the shadows of an ally. In the run-up to the Assembly elections there was talk that if the BJP abandoned Nitish Kumar, he might be open to making amends with Tejashwi Yadav and lending him support from outside.

Said Manoj Jha of the RJD mockingly: “The public is indeed the master but see the condition they’ve placed you in. You [Nitish Kumar] dream of becoming Chief Minister after getting 40 seats. If you analyse the mandate, it’s decisively against you. If you still get the post, only God knows how long will this illusion last.”

The NDA’s victory is being credited to the BJP and Narendra Modi who are being projected as having “rescued” Bihar from Nitish Kumar’s sinking ship. But political observers suggest that the BJP deliberately undermined his position to emerge as the stronger leader in the alliance.

The JD(U) was hurt by the LJP’s vote-cutting strategy against it. It lost over 25 seats because of the LJP. In Ekma constituency, for instance, the RJD’s Shrikant Yadav won by 8,126 votes against the JD(U)’s Sita Devi. The LJP candidate Kameshwar Singh secured 29,992 votes. Again, in Gaighat, the RJD’s Niranjan Roy defeated the JD(U)’s Maheshwar Prasad Yadav by 3,501 votes. The LJP candidate, Komal Singh got 32,242 votes.
Also read: The LJP factor

Had the JD(U) won these seats, it could have retained its upper hand in the NDA. But Chirag Paswan’s entire campaign was focussed on Nitish by calling him “Asambhav Nitish” or “Nitish Impossible”.

The LJP was in direct contest against the JD(U) in many seats and targeted the latter’s constituency of Mahadalits and extremely backward castes (EBC). Besides, many of his candidates were former BJP leaders. Moreover, there was a lack of coordination between JD(U) and BJP workers on the ground. Political observers believe that while the JD(U)’s supporters transferred their votes to the BJP, the reverse was not true and might have been deliberate as well.

JD(U) campaign

In the face of severe criticism, Nitish Kumar stuck to the development agenda, and continued to attack Lalu Prasad, who is currently in prison in connection with the fodder scam. He attacked dynastic politics and ridiculed Tejashwi Yadav’s promise of creating 10 lakh jobs . He accused the opposition of being in cahoots with the liquor mafia to end prohibition in Bihar and pointed out that he had done more for women in Bihar than even Rabri Devi, who ruled as a proxy Chief Minister when her husband, Lalu Prasad, was sent to prison. When nothing seemed to work, in his last election rally in Purnia, he declared that this would be the last elections he contested and for that alone, the voters must give him a final chance.

In an election rally Nitish Kumar said: “Those who neglected education, health, electricity, roads and spent time encouraging jungle raj to promote their family are talking about creating jobs. They could give only 95,000 jobs during the RJD’s 15-year rule. Where will they get money from to pay salaries? The creation of one million additional government jobs will entail an expenditure of Rs.1.44 lakh crore annually. Will they print currency notes? Or will money come from jail? Don’t be surprised if they start their own kaam-dhandha in the name of providing jobs.”
Also read: Lessons from the Bihar Assembly Elections 2020

Nitish Kumar’s governance record

The fact remains that both Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar came from the Lohia school of thought, grew from street politics and were comrades in arms during the Emergency. Nitish Kumar played a significant role in installing Lalu Prasad as Chief Minister in 1990 and they worked together until they fell apart bitterly. In 1994, Nitish Kumar walked out of the Janata Dal to form the Samata Party along with George Fernandes taking 12 other MPs with him. He became the Railway Minister in the NDA government in 1998. And finally in 2005, he ended the RJD’s 15-year-old rule by leading the NDA to power in Bihar.

Thereafter, Nitish Kumar was instrumental in changing Bihar’s image from one of feudal disrepair to that of a State of development and good governance. He single-handedly cleaned the system of corruption and revived the State’s economy. He cracked down on the extortion syndicates that had grown under the RJD’s rule. He increased police strength and set up fast-track courts. He is regarded for building a robust road infrastructure and improving the power situation of the State drastically.

He carved out a constituency for himself among Mahadalits and EBCs, typically constituencies that do not identify with each other. And yet, he managed to hold his own against the RJD’s huge voting blocs. His campaign revolved around his development agenda and initiatives for women, Dalits and EBCs.

In the run-up to the elections, women in Patna told Frontline that even though they liked Lalu Prasad, they were afraid that ‘jungle raj’ might return if they voted for Tejashwi. That the young scion receiving the support of the likes of Pappu Yadav unsettled them. Said one of them: “Pappu Yadav might have reformed. Or not. But if Tejashwi has no qualms about joining hands with such people then we are scared that it might once again become difficult for girls to step out of their homes after dark.”
Also read: Nitish Kumar's flip-flop and fall

Even though people may be upset with Nitish Kumar, women remembered him for making the streets safe for them again. He has successfully created a constituency of women for himself over the years.

Moreover, no matter the electoral choices people make, they would always remember Nitish Kumar for rescuing the Bihari identity. In hindsight, the people showing anger against him in the run-up to the elections might have been an admonition to him to do more, say some political observers.

Until a month ago, Nitish Kumar remained the obvious winner of the elections, with the NDA set to make a decisive comeback. But the COVID-19 lockdown, which triggered a massive migrant crisis with people trudging miles to get back home, threatened the surety of an NDA win. The Mahagathbandhan gave a spirited fight intending to turn the tide.

A politician who dumped friends and shook hands with foes for narrow electoral gains, was given the moniker Paltu (turncoat) Ram by Lalu Prasad. Tejashwi turned it into Paltu chacha. Whether he will be effective in delivering the kind of governance for which he has been voted to power remains a moot question. Many fear that as the BJP’s lackey in the foreseeable future, the lion may be reduced to licking his wounds sustained during a tough election season. However, the last word on him and his party has not yet been written and they remain a work in progress.