Is Nitish Kumar’s return as CM not so easy?
The big question before Bihar goes to polls in three phases from October 28 to November 7 is whether Nitish Kumar can return as chief minister easily for the fourth time.
This is in spite of some pollsters predicting a victory for the ruling Janata Dal(United)-BJP alliance.
It is not just because Nitish is seeking a fourth straight electoral victory in the upcoming polls. (In fact, for Nitish, it will be the sixth term as Bihar chief minister if one includes an eight-day stint in 2000 and two terms interspersed by a nine-month term of Jitan Ram Manjhi in the previous House.)
Rather, it has to do with the situation in Bihar that has undergone a lot of change since the last polls were held in 2015 polls.
Five years ago, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav, the two leaders who were products of the JP Movement as well as the messiahs of the socialist upsurge, ended their rivalry to forge a grand alliance against the BJP. They inflicted a crushing defeat on the BJP but their political friendship did not last.
By 2017, Nitish stormed out of the alliance with Lalu and retained his chief ministership with the help of the BJP.
In 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi propelled the NDA alliance to bag 39 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats from the state. The alliance victory was credited to Modi who enjoyed a huge popularity and towered above Nitish. Also, the inadequacies of the opposition under Lalu Prasad Yadav, who is serving a jail term following his conviction in an animal fodder scam case, boosted the NDA’s appeal.
Cut to 2020, the situation in Bihar still shows that Modi continues to be more popular than Nitish. Nobody thinks as yet that the NDA will suffer a setback. Lalu’s sons, Tejashwi Yadav and Tej Pratap, are still unable to make up for their father’s absence from the arena though the Yadav family still hopes to retain most of the Muslim-Yadav dominated seats.
But, what has changed the situation for Nitish is the tensions within the Bihar NDA following the exit of Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party, founded by Ram Vilas Paswan who passed away suddenly on October 8.
Chirag has declared a war on Nitish, pledging to instal a BJP-led government in Patna. His party has announced that it will contest more than 140 seats, targeting the JD(U) candidates in mostly upper caste dominated seats where the Paswan votes matter a lot. (The vote share of LJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was 7.9% while, in 2014, it had 6.5% support.)
Chirag is upset that he and his late father were ignored and insulted by Nitish. What is strange is that Chirag’s tirade is only directed at Nitish and not at the BJP, which has publicly stated several times it is with the incumbent CM, come what may. It has asked the LJP not to use Modi’s name in the campaign but feels helpless in the wake of Paswan senior’s death to do anything to prevent it. It has declared no truck with LJP to reassure the JD(U).
The LJP has been miffed with Nitish for his success in bringing back to the NDA fold a Mahadalit leader, Jitan Ram Manji, and his party.
That move strengthened the hands of Nitish in re-energising the social engineering plank by consolidating the support of Mahadalits and extremely backward classes (EBC) for the NDA.
True, the LJP’s influence on Dalit votes may not be as much as it claims and hopes. But the sympathy for Ram Vilas Paswan could still help in impacting the prospects of Nitish’s party candidates in some constituencies.
More than the LJP factor, Nitish’s main problem is that his government is facing strong anti-incumbency due to issues like unemployment, Covid-impact on migrant labour and perennial problems like floods.
There are many critics who say Nitish’s image as an anti-corruption crusader has also lost shine in the last five years.
Besides, there is a big question mark on whether the Muslim votes that supported Nitish in the previous elections will still be ready to back him, considering that he is now under Modi’s shadow— unlike in 2015.
With his “secular” credentials, Nitish enjoyed good support from Muslims in the 2005 and 2010 assembly elections. Apart from the RJD-Congress-Left combine, there is another party that is wooing the minority vote. Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) is confident of better performance this time. It had managed to win a by-poll in the Muslim-dominated area.
If this party gains, it will be at the cost of the JD(U) as well as the RJD-led front in the state.
Overall, Nitish is mainly challenged by Tejashwi Yadav, the son of his arch rival Lalu Prasad, who has also faced internal dissensions in the RJD and his own family.
What is working against Nitish is that this will be the biggest election after the outbreak of Covid-19. The Election Commission (EC) has put many restrictions on the poll process and campaigning. Will these measures deter the voters from turning up in large numbers?
Apart from the economic pain caused by the pandemic and health challenge posed by woefully inadequate hospital infrastructure, Nitish is forced to defend his government’s response to the problems faced by migrant workers whose remittances went down in the last six months. Now, many of them are going back to cities to start from the scratch again.
Of course, the Modi government did bolster the relief efforts of the state government by sending adequate food grains for free supply and increasing allocations under MGNREGA for providing work to the rural poor. The Prime Minister has also announced several projects for Bihar, particularly in the last two months, to help Nitish.
However, Nitish’s USP still lies in drawing a comparison of 15 years of his rule with 15 years of Lalu-Rabri rule but some problems of Bihar have not vanished as one would have expected under the “Vikas Babu.”
Law and order and a responsive administration was once Nitish’s strongest point but, of late, there is a sense that things have deteriorated and slackened in Bihar.
That brings us back to the question whether Nitish’s return is dependent on how the electorate views his rule of the last five years or will vote for him because he and Modi alone can save Bihar.
Nitish is hoping to re-sell his development mantra in a new format. In this connection, JD(U) leaders believe that the voters will be impressed with a detailed roadmap, which will include job creation through promoting startups, skill development centres, soft loans for women to start their own business, irrigation facilities for all fields and lighting of all village roads in the state.
On their part, counting on Modi’s charisma, BJP leaders are contacting 2.38 crore beneficiaries of Jan Dhan accounts while also reaching out to 84.4 lakh beneficiaries of the PM Ujjwala scheme, which provides subsidised cooking gas and 59 lakh beneficiaries of PM Kisan scheme, under which every landholding farmer gets Rs. 6000 per annum. BJP leaders also say Nitish’s efforts to provide drinking water to every household will have some impact.
At the end of the election campaign, what will probably have a big say is the caste factor working in favour or against respective candidates. No section is being left unattended by all parties. Besides the EBCs, the BJP and JD(U) are also counting on “upper caste-Baniya and OBCs” (major supporters for the BJP) and “Luv-Kush” (Kurmi-Koeri for the JD(U).
Nitish knows he is very dependent on Modi, and has willingly let the PM play a big role in the campaign.
So the indecipherable question is still what happens if the BJP gets a huge number compared to the JD(U)? Will it still stand by its word that it will make Nitish become CM again?
Despite its misgivings over the BJP’s “hidden” plans, the JD(U) is hoping that it can repeat its performance of 2010 when it was aligned with the BJP. It won 206 of 243 seats.
On their part, some BJP leaders have chosen to hide their disenchantment with the leadership of Nitish. In the outgoing assembly, the BJP has 53 seats in the outgoing House as compared to JD(U)’s 69.
Everything will ultimately depend on the number of seats won by major players. Nitish will stay on with the BJP and vice versa if the seats won by each side do not allow for any other option. But any change in the numbers could mean new political somersaults and changed partners, say some analysts.
No one forgets that Nitish had dumped the BJP before the 2015 elections and joined hands with the RJD and the Congress. In 2017, he joined hands with the BJP to save his government because he could not bear the pressures of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s family on him. This time, Lalu is hoping his son Tejashwi will enable the RJD to emerge as the single largest party in the assembly. But then, a lot of water has flown down the Ganges that runs through Bihar in the last ten years.
By Shekhar Iyer