What happens in Bihar doesn’t just stay in Bihar but reverberates across the BIMARU political landscape and in New Delhi. The results defied exit polls but were consistent with popular expectations that, despite his fading star, Nitish Kumar would likely pull through helped by the alliance with the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal popularity, plus long memories of Lalu Raj.
‘Jungle raj’ doesn’t capture the lasting damage inflicted on Bihar’s social, political and physical fabric during the dark years of 1990-2005. Lalu’s defeat in 2005 lifted a shroud from Bihar’s body politic. Nitish came to power vowing to end jungle raj and restore normalcy to a state in which development had gone backwards, law and order had collapsed, infrastructure had disintegrated, public services had disappeared and the only growth industry was kidnapping for ransom.
Nitish invested heavily in upgrading physical and social services infrastructure like roads, hospitals, schools and food distribution. Corruption was brought down. Women were empowered down to the panchayats. Nitish’s superior performance on governance was handsomely rewarded in 2010 with 115 seats in the 243-seat assembly, plus another 91 for the BJP.
In 2015, he formed a pre-poll alliance with arch enemy Lalu. They won a two-thirds majority with 71 and 80 seats respectively and Tejashwi Yadav became Deputy CM. The political marriage of convenience ended in divorce in 2017 and Nitish reconstituted the alliance with the BJP. He is the quintessential survivor of Bihar politics. But the constantly shifting alliances have gradually eroded his credibility.
Remarkably for a CM of such durability, he still lacks a broad power base of his own, although the narrow base is intensely loyal. Instead, ‘Sushasan Kumar’ has relied on a record of administrative governance against the RJD’s dushasan.
For the first time, Nitish was the target of the desire for change, not its aspiring agent. Hubris had made him disconnected, aloof and arrogant, blind to warning signs of the need to shift from a singular focus on caste arithmetic to issues of competence and governance in cabinet formation and government performance. Sensing his star was on the descendant with calls of ‘Nitish hatao’, the promise of making this his last election helped Nitish connect emotionally with voters who may have flirted with deserting him: ‘Nitish sarkar, akhri baar’.
This shows up in the reversal of strike rate from 66.2% for the MGB in the first phase to 64.5% for the NDA in the third phase of voting. Nitish also expanded the women vote, partly with the prohibition policy, partly from the joint Bihar-GOI Direct Benefit Transfer scheme that deposited money into Jan Dhan accounts of women.
Modi’s metaphor of double engine development worked, where the same formation in power in Patna and New Delhi would work to Bihar’s benefit. The NDA and MGB vote shares are near-identical: 37.26% and 37.23% respectively. Remarkably, their 125-110 seats are exactly the same as in 2015.
Within the respective alliances, however, there are significant shifts. The RJD lost 5 but is the largest single party with 75 seats; the BJP gained 21 to come second with 74 as the senior partner. Congress has become an electoral albatross around the neck of any alliance. The MGB might well have won another 15 seats with the Congress quota reduced to 35.
The election saw the debut of two dynastic princelings. The sun set on one but the other’s star lit up the sky in the firmament of Bihar politics. Both contain dangers for the BJP’s political ambition to colour the entire country saffron for years to come.
Chirag Paswan’s LJP contested 137 seats, 110 of them against the JD(U), but won only one, by a slim margin. He fully earned the ‘vote cutter‘ moniker, helping to slash the JD(U) seats. Short-term tactical cunning betrays long-term strategic stupidity. BJP became the senior partner with the Machiavellian promotion of Chirag to reduce Nitish’s clout.
This will deepen the BJP’s reputation as a duplicitous, untrustworthy and back-stabbing partner instead of a trusted political ally, impose a reputational cost with the public, and make other parties reluctant to get into bed with it even in marriages of convenience.
The 31 year old Tejashwi’s transformative performance poses a potent future threat to Modi and the BJP. He came out of the shadow of his father, proved a charismatic crowd puller, and demonstrated unsuspected skills in cultivating coalitions. Articulate on the stump, he showed finely tuned political instincts in erasing Lalu from campaign hoardings and not targeting Modi and the BJP. Instead he framed this as a state referendum on the Nitish government.
Tejashwi’s energy and vibrancy were in sharp contrast to Nitish’s staleness, tiredness and uncharacteristic irritability. Most importantly, Tejashwi broadened the RJD’s electoral appeal beyond the Muslim-Yadav base by shifting from a caste based campaign for social justice to a class based call for economic justice: kamai, dawai, padhai, sichai aur mehengai.
These demands resonated with those who’ve been buffeted the worst by deteriorating economic conditions and were angered by Nitish’s callous indifference to the plight of migrant labourers returning home to Bihar amidst the pandemic. As Sagarika Ghose perceptively noted, Tejashwi could become a post-Mandal persona by recasting the quota revolution in the current vocabulary of vikas. Opposition forces could coalesce around him to challenge the national dominance of Modi.
Just like in 2020 Nitish was no longer the fresh and exciting alternative of 2005, so in 2024 Modi too will have to battle anti-incumbency and defend a patchy record of development, growth, job creation and good governance.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.