After almost nine years in power and after seeing unprecedented victory and a crushing defeat, Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, put in his papers on Saturday taking ‘moral responsibility’ for the Lok Sabha loss.
At the root is the tense dynamics between Kumar and PM-designate Narendra Modi, which disrupted an otherwise harmonious 17-year-old NDA alliance.
Bitter rivals, the two actually share many character traits – both are fiercely possessive of their independence; both are dominant, authoritative, leaders; both work closely with bureaucrats, often bypassing established politicians; both have a rigorous work ethic; and both are single.
Kumar has consistently explained his decision to break with BJP in 2013, once it became clear that Modi would lead the BJP campaign, as one ‘rooted in principles’.
The JD (U) leader has reached out to Muslims and believes in the broad ‘secular’ tradition. But critics are quick to ask – what happened to ‘secularism’ while allying with the BJP? Kumar’s stock response has been he did so to end Lalu Prasad’s reign, but did not allow BJP to impose its ‘divisive agenda’ on the state.The personal dislike, however, is hard to miss.
In his biography of Kumar, ‘Single Man’, author Sankarshan Thakur recounts a Punjab rally in the 2009 elections when Modi walked up to Kumar on the stage and held his hand to wave together. Kumar was furious, and later told an interlocutor who had convinced him to attend the rally, “Is this why you brought me here? I have been provoked… All of this is deliberate.”
Observers have alluded to other more real politik calculations behind the split – a desire to become the sole custodian of the Muslim votes; an underlying ambition to be the face of the anti-Modi political front and a possible Third Front Prime Minister candidate; an assumption that the Congress would ally with him.
Not only did these calculations fall flat, but Kumar’s carefully constructed social coalition collapsed. The JD (U) had made inroads among Extreme Backward Castes and Mahadalits, while BJP brought to the table its substantial upper-caste base. This election showed that BJP has successfully made inroads into Kumar’s base.
Kumar’s overall tenure will be remembered for the way he transformed Bihar’s image. In his first term, he improved the law and order situation by improving conviction rates, and cracking down on crime. He also improved infrastructure and gradually increasing the GDP growth rate to nearly 14%.
In his second term, the CM drew criticism on three counts. He was unable to bring in investment which would create jobs. Allowing his bureaucrats power, now became a baggage as people complained of ‘afsarshahi’. There were also widespread allegations of corruption at the ground-level.
With the results and resignation, Nitish Kumar is down, but given the sharp swings in Bihar’s politics, he is not necessarily out.