Is Bihar Tired of Nitish Kumar Rule?
When in 2017 Nitish
Kumar swerved back into the BJP fold, many watchers of Bihar politics predicted
that the eventual loser of this manoeuvre would be the
Chief Minister himself. This prognosis seems truer than ever now, with Assembly
elections due this week.
It has become evident
from the BJP’s campaign so far that it had welcomed Kumar back in 2017 only to
avenge his unceremonious 2013 exit from the NDA. By splitting the Lok Janshakti
Party (LJP) and pitting it against Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), the BJP may
well be settling scores. It is also sending a message to its core Brahmin,
Rajput, Bhumihar and Bania voters that they plan to capture the political space
in Bihar by weakening an unreliable ally.
This spectre of upper
caste rule has dented the intensity of support for JD(U) among its core voters.
Kumar’s carefully crafted “coalition of extremes”, which includes extremely
backward class voters, Mahadalits, women and elite caste supporters, is visibly
fragmented. The scattered EBC population tends to vote in alignment with the
dominant caste that is closest in proximity, but this time such mobilisation is
listless, also because Nitish’s present tenure did nothing to tackle
Bhumihar motormouth Giriraj Singh may become BJP chief minister further
alienated the non-elite social groups in Bihar. True, the Yadavs too are seen
as hegemons, but the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has allied with a visibly
resurgent Left, which has a strong support base among lower castes in several
pockets, and the Congress, whose voters include Muslims and Hindu elite castes.
This social coalition has sent the message among lower-backward classes and
Mahadalits that Yadavs will be kept in check.
The twists and turns
in the Bihar election campaign began with the pandemic-linked lockdown.
Initially, the Opposition seemed absent and tainted muscleman Pappu Yadav and
his “spoiler” outfit, the Jan Adhikar Party (JAP), tried to steal the limelight
by distributing relief. But this left Biharis wondering about the source of his
funding. People did question the former deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav
for going silent.
Yet, once the sudden
nationwide lockdown was imposed in March, the incumbent JD(U)-BJP regime
started getting exposed. First, it aggressively refused to welcome to the state
the returning migrants, who mostly belong to oppressed social groups. The
rejection of 30 to 40 lakh jobless returning migrants seemed to make true what
Sachidanand Sinha had said in his 1973 book about Bihar—that it is treated like
an “internal colony” by the Centre.
Even then, in April
or May, many still boldly declared that the working classes had been so lured
by the siren song of Hindutva that they cared nothing their own suffering
during the lockdown. And this is exactly where the BJP became overconfident and
started going wrong. It projected Nitish as next chief minister, but made its
own ambition to capture Bihar obvious. The result was to split the NDA in
two—BJP plus LJP versus BJP plus JD(U). The LJP launched rhetorical attacks
against Nitish and praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but refused to use his
pictures in his party’s campaign banners and struck alliances with minor
leaders such as Mukesh Sahni and Jitan Manjhi. [Sahni has some appeal among the
aspirational “Ati Pichda” fishermen community in pockets of North Bihar, while
Manjhi has some appeal in his community of lower Dalits such as Musahar and
When the campaign
drew closer, the BJP resorted to extreme communal polarisation. Its Yadav
“face” Nityanand Rai, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, started by
comparing RJD rule with “terrorist” rule. But the BJP retreated soon after,
making vague attempts, perhaps strategically, at “damage control”. It is as if
the party was acknowledging that communalisation had proved counterproductive
for it in the 2015 Assembly election. Kumar remained silent. Then BJP president
JP Nadda declared the Centre’s determined bid to go ahead with the divisive
CAA, NRC and NPR. Another Union minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, attacked
Tejashwi Yadav for being under-qualified. But people had had enough—they
rebutted him with counter-claims that BJP leaders themselves had presented
“fake” degrees and that Tejashwi was at least a skilled cricketer.
Ever since, Kumar has
been harping on the follies of the Lalu-Rabri era. This sent the message that
his 15-year rule has nothing substantial to offer voters. In any case,
regardless of socio-political divides, it is widely accepted in Bihar that the last
five years have been miserable in terms of development and governance. The 2016
liquor ban deprived toddy-tappers of income and spurred organised liquor and
land mafias, which are complicit with the police. The perception among people
is that the JD(U) depends upon this mafia for election funding.
Unemployment is so
acute in the state today that the Mahagathbandhan’s 10 lakh job promise, whose
implementation they have spelt out in detail, has struck a chord with people.
BJP’s Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi called the Mahagathbandhan target
“impossible to meet”, but then Ravishankar Prasad went on to announce 19 lakh
jobs. These contradictions have made a mockery of the BJP’s competitive
populism plank. That said, with some exceptions, neither political parties nor
media are truly underscoring the ruin of Bihar’s sugar, jute, paper, wagon, incense-stick, power-loom, silk and Dalmianagar industries.
Nitish’s seven point
“Nishchay” to make Bihar “Saksham” and to skill the youth, women and rural
people are things he should already have accomplished. Seeking yet another term
to achieve these essential goals only reveals that Nitish has lost his way. He
strikes an odd note, blaming geography—the fact that Bihar is landlocked—for
its underdevelopment. To top it all, Sushil Modi has claimed Biharis love
working outside Bihar, and he is being mocked and caricatured for this.
For all these
reasons, Nitish’s speeches seem dull and uninspiring and he is failing to
connect with people. Whatever little infrastructure he created has been
overwhelmed by the poor focus on healthcare and unemployment, which the reverse
migration and agrarian distress have exposed.
Right through the Covid-19
crisis, the chief minister frequently went incommunicado. Being silent and
inaccessible badly dented his cultivated image of a performing and hard-working
executive. Revulsion over the decentralised corruption and specific grievances
of people—such as not allowing para-teachers pay parity with regular
teachers—have created strong resentments across Bihar.
Despite all these
indications, the BJP stuck to its strategy of organising big rallies addressed
by leaders from Delhi. The political scientist James Manor had written in 2016
about the reasons for BJP’s failure in the 2015 Assembly election. One of the
reasons, he said, was “extreme over-centralization within the BJP campaign”.
that Asaduddin Owaisi’s MIM would chip into Muslim votes, particularly in
eastern Bihar (Seemanchal), also seem to have been ruled out. The polarising
statement of Nityanand Rai has enhanced fear and insecurity among Muslims. They
are unprepared to risk facilitating a BJP victory by dividing their votes. Moreover,
Owaisi’s alliance with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and Upendra Kushwaha’s
Rashtriya Lok Samta Party, which has fielded candidates across Bihar, has
possibly boomeranged. Its ticket-seekers are openly alleging that the Bihar
unit extracted money and distributed tickets only to divide Muslim votes. Such
a discredited MIM is, quite possibly, advantage Mahagathbandhan.
This election is
significant for Bihar, as the campaign emphasises more on concrete employment
and economic issues, even though the BJP initially attempted communal
polarisation. The BJP’s core voters are more among the vocal middle classes of
the dominant castes. This exposes the hypocrisy of the Bihari middle class,
which has greater stakes in the BJP’s notion of development. The result on 10
November would tell us clearly if Bihar is ready to set aside communal
polarisation and rhetoric. The next question will be whether the new
regime—most likely led by a young and inexperienced chief minister—will deliver
people’s needs. How long, after all, can Bihar remain a supplier of cheap
labour to India’s growing urban pockets? This is a question Bihar has been
asking since long, and there is no easy answer to it.
The author teaches
modern and contemporary Indian history at Aligarh Muslim University. The views