Bihar: A referendum on Nitish Kumar
The 2020 assembly election in Bihar has taken an interesting turn. The competition between top national and regional parties, the rift within existing alliances, the discourse around jobs, and most importantly, the focus on Nitish Kumar’s record have made the polls complex . Indeed, it is difficult to predict which key electoral issue is going to influence voters most deeply.
After election dates were announced, public discourse was centered mainly around creating a formidable alliance of parties, which would bring together caste-based votebanks. But, as polling day approaches, there are still cracks in both the main coalitions in the state. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) was not able retain three potential partners within its formation. Two of them, the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) led by Mukesh Sahni and Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) led by Jitan Ram Manjhi, shifted to the rival group, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), while the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) led by Upendra Kushwaha has allied with other smaller parties. These parties may be small but they command the loyalty of segments of distinct social groups, based on the caste appeal of their leaders, which could well affect the fortunes of the mahagathbandhan.
On the other hand, the internal dynamic within the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Nitish Kumar led NDA is not smooth either. The coalition could not retain the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) in the pre-poll alliance. Interestingly, the LJP is fighting mainly against the Janata Dal (United). Twenty-one out of its 134 candidates are former BJP functionaries who are taking on the JD(U) on the LJP symbol. This has created confusion among BJP supporters over whether to support the JD(U) candidates or the LJP. And while Chirag Paswan has attacked Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar, he is all praise for the BJP. He has proclaimed that he is a fan of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, and the LJP continues to be remain part of the NDA at the Centre.
Many BJP leaders have issued somewhat unconvincing clarifications that the LJP is not part of the NDA in the state. Modi’s silence on this issue in his campaign speeches on Friday has also deepened speculation over that there could be a tacit understanding between the BJP and LJP. There is no doubt that the PM is popular among the voters and, therefore, the LJP may be trying to use this to its advantage, despite the BJP’s protestations that it has asked the LJP to refrain from doing so. These developments pose a challenge for Nitish Kumar who is facing anti-incumbency after 15 years in power.
The election campaign is now centered around Nitish Kumar. Unlike in the previous election, the Opposition has refrained from attacking the PM. Therefore, it is Nitish Kumar’s record as CM which seems to be the key electoral issue. His victory in both 2005 and 2010 was the outcome of a successful “coalition of extremes” that brought various caste groups together with the help of the BJP and the other influential caste leaders. In 2015, he allied with Lalu Prasad, who had his own winning combination of Yadavs and Muslims. He then split from Lalu Prasad, whose absence, this time around, should have made the fight easier for the CM, but given the discord within the NDA, that is not the case anymore.
The other issue which features prominently, and has been taken up by the Opposition, is unemployment. The challenge of generating employment is not limited to Bihar, but the huge population coupled with the lack of job opportunities has posed a substantial policy challenge.
Apart from the public sector, employment is dependent on the size and scope of the private sector. Bihar’s market constitutes only 4% of the national market. The state is hobbled by the absence of land reform and the effects of persistent feudalism persist. The surplus from agriculture has not been ploughed into industry. Bihar has not yet taken a capitalist turn, even though social change and democratisation has taken place. Apart from the effects of large-scale migration, bottom-up corruption has corroded most state structures.
The absence of bijli, sadak and paani (electricity, roads and water) as significant issues in this election suggests a paradigm shift in the electoral discourse. There was a time when many parts of the country, including Bihar, were struggling to get basic infrastructure. This suggests that Bihar, under Nitish Kumar, has successfully addressed these issues. The other issues are related to people’s aspirations to achieve outcomes on par with those of other developed states. With migration and the electronic media, the cognitive world has expanded even in rural Bihar.
Experience from the previous elections suggest that the key factor behind Nitish Kumar’s success has been the coalition of extremes, which includes dominant castes as well as the most marginalised backward, Dalit and Muslim groups. He is still one of the most popular chief ministers in the country, which is why the BJP has been compelled to accept him as the face of the coalition. Even if Chirag Paswan’s attempts to chip away at the CM succeeds, the BJP will not allow anyone else, but Nitish Kumar to become the CM if the NDA wins. The BJP will wait for another term for its chance because this is the only Hindi heartland state where the party has not yet reached its peak.
Shaibal Gupta is member secretary, Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), Patna
The views expressed are personal