Nitish Kumar has his image to flaunt and political momentum on his side, thanks to a formidable partnership with the BJP which wants to leave nothing to chance
PR Ramesh and Ullekh NP | 16 Oct, 2020
Nitish Kumar at a virtual rally in Patna, September 7 (Photo: Getty Images)
In the long years of what they call ‘jungle raj’ in Bihar when Lalu Prasad held the reins of India’s third-most populous state, first as Chief Minister from 1990 to 1997, and later when he remote-controlled the government through his wife Rabri Devi who stayed in power until early 2005, almost every official order had a note on it: ‘cabinet ke anumodan ke pratyasha mein’ (in anticipation of the cabinet’s nod). Decisions were taken on a whim by Lalu, if he ever took any that mattered. Cabinet meetings were seldom held because there was no need for consensus in a one-man reign. The famed story of Nitish Kumar discovering that the Chief Minister’s office in Patna’s Old Secretariat had just one Remington typewriter and broken furniture was just one of the symptoms of the governmental fatigue linked to the malaise that marked the Lalu era, which, ironically, started with great hope—of the marginalised getting their due and breaking the ceiling of upper-caste privilege of centuries.
Out of that lofty dream came nightmare and widespread disaffection with the regime, until Nitish struggled against the odds for years with the help of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and finally dislodged the Lalu Prasad clan in the second of the two elections held in 2005. The first one of February threw up no clear winner who could form the government. The next one, held in October-November, ended Nitish’s long wait to displace Lalu and his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) with the promise of riding out the bad times for the state known for its policy paralysis and acute backwardness.
Fifteen years later, as Nitish, now 69, braces for another round of elections in the state, which is home to the highest number of young people in all of India, the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), heavyweight banks on his image as ‘Sushasan Babu’ against Lalu’s unenviable record of leading the eastern state, and quite symbolically so, with his RJD’s lantern, into the dark alleys of systemic corruption and lawlessness. The streets of state capital Patna are now well-lit and Nitish, thanks to his rigour and perseverance as a governance-oriented ruler, has rebuilt and recast infrastructure and institutions, an incontestable feat that world-renowned economists and policy wonks often bring up at high-profile seminars. If not anything else, he is credited with ushering in the idea of cohesion in the running of a state that had almost slipped into administrative abyss and disrepair. He certainly must be glad that at the present conjuncture, he faces only feeble resistance from the man whose supremacy he had emphatically crushed. Although Nitish and Lalu had joined hands briefly in the last Assembly elections to trounce the BJP, the bonhomie between strange bedfellows RJD and JD(U) did not last long and Nitish finally retained power with the BJP’s backing in a major realignment of forces, snapping ties with the RJD that bore the distinctive stamp of decadence. Lalu, 72, is not campaigning in the elections this time round due to ill health.
The missing challenger narrative isn’t merely a cosmetic exemplum, but a stark tale of outliving an arch-rival now on the wane in a political landscape where new caste equations have emerged, only to stay. The peculiarity of these Assembly polls is that the absentee opposition is still remote-controlled by Lalu Prasad, considering the lack of experience of his two sons—including his chosen successor Tejashwi Yadav and his brother Tej Pratap Yadav—in ensuring unity within the party fold and in handling the allotment of seats. On the other hand, Nitish certainly has acquired a halo in comparison with the contenders to his throne. The BJP-JD(U) combine had firmed up the whole poll strategy two months earlier that included outlining tactics in a state known for extremely caste-obsessed voting patterns, according to people close to the matter. After having taken such crucial decisions with great ease, Nitish’s relaxed composure contrasts with the last-minute chaos in the opponents’ camp and their timorous voices. The return of the migrants following the Covid-19 lockdown did create mayhem across the country and Bihar was no exception, but the state government took adequate steps to take things in their stride, even though bureaucrats hastened to add that such measures have to be viewed in a relative, not absolute, sense. “They talk of Covid-19 and today it’s completely controlled in Bihar. Only 961 people have died while Congress-ruled Maharashtra has 41,000 deaths,” said Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi. An unblemished public life and administrative prowess are clearly Nitish’s biggest assets at the hustings. That the BJP has thrown its weight behind him with gusto, notwithstanding minor discordant noises within the coalition with ally Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) deciding to go it alone, has only vitalised the campaign as he hit the ground running, confident and cheerful, in the run-up to the three-phased election to be held October-end and in early November.
The expectation in the Nitish camp is that the ‘Djinn’ that Lalu had said would come out of the ballot box—in the 1995 election that brought him the political apotheosis—will come out this time to script an ideological exit, in full measure, of the RJD leader’s policies and politics.
Lalu Prasad was an unlikely Chief Minister in 1990. A student leader who had cut his teeth in the JP movement of the 1970s, Lalu had won elections on his long journey to becoming the leader of the opposition in Bihar in 1989. But when the Janata Dal, to which he belonged in 1990, came to power in the state, his name came up as a consensus candidate for chief minister and was suggested by then Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal. It was after the arrest in September of LK Advani in Samastipur during the latter’s Rath Yatra that Lalu earned fame as the darling of the secular forces in the country. He also had the numerically dominant Yadav votes in his favour. Besides, lower castes and Muslims who had until then backed the Congress saw in him a saviour. That was the cocktail of Lalu’s success and long reign. Although he was ambivalent about secularism earlier, he stole the limelight by projecting himself as a crusader against the BJP. The broader coalition that came into being was resentful of the exploitative caste system; his rhetoric drew Muslims to him in large numbers. For someone from the Yadav clan, he even went to the extent of poking fun at Lord Ram and his followers. His political calculations worked magic, catapulting him to the stature of a national politician with enormous public support. A witty and irresistible orator, he pulled in votes like a magnet and in 1995, notwithstanding his government’s poor record, staged the biggest electoral triumph of his career in Bihar. It was the fear of the old system returning that forced the backward castes and others to choose him over the others. Although a section of pundits had written him off, he won by a clear margin in the polls. Lalu had also relaxed taxes on toddy and fishing, endearing himself to poor folk and ensuring a consolidation of the backward-class votes. The fear that the gains they had acquired would disappear if Lalu was gone did the trick. A large number of non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBC) had also tagged along under the banner of social justice when Lalu came out with his “Bhura baal saaf karo” slogan (exhorting his followers to finish off upper castes politically).
The BJP has always had a high strike rate in Bihar. The party is pursuing a strategy aimed at the 2025 Assembly elections. At the micro-level, it has rolled out a ‘scientific’, booth-oriented plan, with seven people put in charge of each booth
By 1997, Lalu had got embroiled in the fodder scam and had to spend time in prison and in detention, but continued to cling to power through Rabri Devi until 2005. By then, Bihar had slid into a kind of ‘Yadavraj’, with Yadavs gaining disproportionate prominence compared with other backward groups. The extremely backward classes, who account for close to 30 per cent of Bihar, felt betrayed. Similarly, Mahadalits, the poorest and the most marginalised among the Dalits, also felt stifled under his watch. Nitish, whose Kurmi community accounts for a minuscule of Bihar’s population, began to sense an opportunity in those communities that felt outraged by the rejection of the Lalu-steered regime that they had backed wholeheartedly early on.
LJP leader Ram Vilas Paswan, who died on October 8th and whose son Chirag has decided to go solo in the state polls this time, was senior to both Lalu and Nitish in politics. He was elected an MLA as early as 1969 in Bihar as a Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) candidate. Close to Janata Party leader Raj Narain, he had a smooth sailing in politics in his early years. Later, although he did not grow into a Dalit leader with a pan-India image, he served as Union minister under various Prime Ministers, including VP Singh, HD Deve Gowda, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi. His biggest hurdle, despite being from the assertive community of Paswans, was that he did not belong to a community that had national spread unlike the Jatavs in Uttar Pradesh.
Paswan did rise beyond caste and class preoccupations and was instrumental in encouraging VP Singh to table the Mandal Commission report in Parliament with the aim of checkmating the BJP, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s was soaring in popularity with political momentum on its side.
Despite his ambitions to become a Dalit icon with a mass appeal, Paswan was overshadowed by the rise of Kanshi Ram’s brand of assertive politics focused mainly on Uttar Pradesh. As Paswan lay dying, his party was already reduced to a family enterprise comprising merely his son Chirag. Although the LJP was offered 25 seats in the 243-member Bihar Assembly and a few MLC seats, he chose to dissociate himself from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the state, claiming that the LJP deserved more. For all his ambitions, not many people want to wager a bet on Chirag Paswan, now 37, making it big in politics—but yes, often leaders break free of the factors that restrict their growth and go on to leave an unexpected footprint.
Apart from Lalu, the leader among the socialists of their generation who has made it big in Bihar as the leader of a larger composition of voters is Nitish. Unlike Paswan, he broke free of the limitations of his community’s spread. And thanks to the BJP, grassroots activities are in full swing to consolidate the vote banks that have typically backed the BJP-JD(U) combine.
The BJP, for its part, has always had a very high strike rate in Bihar. In 2010, the election that established Nitish as a clear winner in the Bihar scheme of things and pitch-forked him as a national leader, the BJP won close to 90 per cent of the seats it had contested. This time round, mindful of the need for a resounding triumph, the two parties are contesting from an almost equal numbers of seats, unlike earlier when the JD(U) contested a larger number.
The BJP apparently is pursuing a strategy aimed at the 2025 Assembly elections with a long-term perspective. As of now, it has already secured assistance from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at the grassroots level to carry out intense micro campaigns to woo more voters to the party’s fold. According to a senior leader involved in formalising the campaign strategy in the state, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi will tirelessly campaign for the victory of the alliance besides other senior leaders, at the micro-level, the party has rolled out a ‘scientific’, booth-oriented plan, with seven people put in charge of each booth. BJP chief JP Nadda is monitoring all the outreach programmes of the party that involves women and farmers. The party’s general secretary, BL Santosh, is interacting closely with party workers who are given various segments of the campaign to handle. The BJP had already done close surveys of constituencies and had taken extreme caution in allotting seats. Party leaders told Open that they expect to canvass votes aggressively through various means, including virtual rallies of the Prime Minister that tend to attract large crowds. One of them said the BJP is not averse to holding parleys to arrive at an understanding with parties that have broken out of the RJD-led alliance, hinting at the the recent pact with Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) led by Bollywood set designer Mukesh Sahani.
The party, which has grown nationally from being a Brahmin-Bhumihar-upper caste party to a Hindu nationalist entity with greater acceptability across the caste spectrum, wants to retain its traditional vote base, too. Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is the BJP in-charge for polls in the state where upper castes account for 15 per cent of the population, of which Brahmins are nearly 5 per cent. The three-phase elections will begin on October 28th and the second and the third phases will be held on November 3rd and 7th respectively. The results will be declared on November 10th. In Bihar, Muslims account for 16 per cent of the population, Yadavs 12 per cent, Kurmis 4 per cent and Dalits 18 per cent. With close to 130 different caste groupings, the Economically Backward Classes (EBC) vote bank has by and large been a disparate, non-cohesive one until the BJP factored them into its electoral strategy. Lately, it has been making an all-out effort to woo the Mallah/Nishad communities in the riverine areas of Bihar. The BJP has also successfully managed to win over Mahadalits in the previous elections. They include Musahars in places in and around Gaya, Purnia, Katihar and so on.
The party banks on Kushwahas and non-Yadav OBCs to vote for its alliance in the polls in many parts of Bihar, a senior party functionary said, adding that the BJP has succeeded in wooing caste groups felt left out of social engineering exercises so far. Open had written in the past—and so have many political analysts—about Ram Manohar Lohia’s warning that a neo-elite among backwards could turn out to be more feudal than the upper castes they supplanted in the power matrix. He had said that the cartelisation of the upper OBC leadership would get deeply entrenched, making it that much more difficult for the lower classes to oust them in the power struggle.
The prolonged socio-political debility of these lower classes, especially after being denigrated during the RJD rule, has made them veer towards the BJP. Internal diversity also ended up being a politically disadvantageous proposition for them.
The peculiarity of these Assembly polls is that the absentee opposition is still remote-controlled by Lalu Prasad, considering the lack of experience of his two sons—including his chosen successor Tejashwi—in ensuring unity within the party
The ruling coalition leader at the Centre also expects to make gains in the Seemanchal region comprising Araria, Katihar, Kishanganj and Purnia in the anticipation that an alliance cobbled up by All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) leader and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi and former Union minister Upendra Kushwaha will divide the opposition’s votes. Its leaders dismissed the claim that the tie-up would prove to be detrimental to Nitish in the region.
With the Congress and other small parties expected to play only a marginal role in the upcoming elections, and with Lalu Prasad admitted to the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Ranchi even as he serves a long sentence in multiple fodder scam cases, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is unfazed by the calculations and forecasts being churned out by pundits and others. In a virtual rally on October 15th, Nitish reminded his viewers again of the track record of the Lalu era. He said that after he took over as Chief Minister in 2005-end, he ordered a survey that revealed that only 39 people visited a primary health centre in the state in a month. He said that the figure is now 10,000 per month.
By reeling out statistics comparing his achievements with the stagnant state of affairs in Bihar under Lalu, Nitish will be sticking to his tried and tested strategy in a region which, for all its backwardness, is renowned for the earthy yet incisive political commentaries of its voters. In addition, the organisational power and the meticulous campaign skills of BJP heavyweights are sure to offer him an edge in the rough and tumble of Bihar’s caste-ridden politics.
As he endures the dirt, dust and grime of Bihar on yet another occasion in an unprecedented campaign marred by social distancing protocols and fears of the spread of Covid-19, Nitish Kumar perhaps knows it only too well that, in his state, the discerning voter is king.