BJP the big winner in Bihar, ‘opportunist’ Nitish Kumar will struggle to explain U-turn
The grand alliance -- between Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), Lalu Prasad’s RJD and the Congress -- was a model that the opposition was keen to expand to take on the BJP in the next Lok Sabha polls.Updated: Jul 27, 2017 12:24 IST
The BJP is the real winner in the breakup of the so-called grand alliance, or Mahagathbandhan, in Bihar.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar’s decision to walk out of the coalition halfway through his term has helped the BJP neutralise the one real threat it faced ahead of the 2019 national election.
The grand alliance -- between Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress -- was a model that the opposition was keen to replicate and expand to take on the BJP in the next Lok Sabha election.
And yet again, the BJP has managed to snatch another vital state from the opposition, which is increasingly finding its political space shrinking.
Kumar’s return less than four years after he walked out of the NDA will help the BJP-led alliance to win over more regional allies. Its decision to extend “unconditional support” to Kumar is a signal that regional players will get their space to work.
Bihar, too, in the bag
Bihar was one state that withstood the “Modi wave”. Riding high on the success of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP was humiliated in Bihar election the very next year. Kumar was toasted as the hero who could take on the might of the Modi-Shah combine.
The Bihar “success” comes a few months ahead of the next round of state elections. Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Himachal Pradesh, one of the few states where the Congress is in power, are due for election in November and December. Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Tripura pick new governments in 2018.
The disintegration of the “grand alliance” also compromises the opposition camp in other ways. Lalu Prasad’s frantic bid to cobble up a “secular” resistance to the BJP by reaching out to the Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati is far from done without a Kumar by his side.
Kumar’s decision to switch sides makes it easier for the BJP to take on the opposition leaders on the issue of corruption. He was one of the few opposition chief ministers who could stand up to the BJP’s claim of providing a corruption-free government under Modi.
West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee, who has a running feud with the Modi government, has several senior party colleagues named in chit fund scams. Senior Congress leader and Himachal CM Virbhadra Singh is being tried for allegedly acquiring assets through dubious means. Ditto for RJD chief Lalu Prasad and his family members.
Kumar has a lot to lose
While the BJP has a lot to cheer for, Kumar’s position has been weakened.
He may have successfully broken out of the graft-tainted RJD “prison to breathe freely”, as JD(U) spokespersons put it, the fact remains he has gone back to a party he had vowed to take on to defeat its communal agenda. Kumar will have a hard time explaining his change of heart, yet again.
An angry Lalu Prasad called Kumar an “opportunist” and the label is likely to stick. Questions will also be asked about the timing of CBI raids and cases against the RJD chief and his family and also why Kumar suddenly felt uncomfortable with the accusations which his JD(U) until recently said were the same as the ones made 10 years ago.
Also, Kumar’s Muslim supporters are likely to take a dim view of his dalliances with the BJP. His decision to go with the RJD and the Congress to oppose the “communal agenda” of the BJP saw the minority community support him in 2015 state election. A repeat is unlikely.
The caste math
Kumar is a Kurmi, a caste that accounts for only three per cent of Bihar’s population. Compare it to RJD’s support base of Yadavs (15% ) and Muslims (13% ) and Kumar is way behind.
His attempts to gain support among Dalits (29%) and women could help but this arithmetic is yet untested. Women voted in large numbers for the grand alliance in 2015 and Kumar is known to enjoy support among them.
Lalu Prasad said Kumar and NDA played to a script. Kumar’s support for demonetisation, skipping Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s lunch and breaking ranks with the opposition to support Ram Nath Kovind in the presidential election were all part of a larger design to provoke the RJD, Prasad said.
JD(U) has said Kumar stood for probity in public life, with zero tolerance for corruption. But if that was the case then why did he join hands with the RJD in 2015, Prasad has asked, reminding Kumar of his conviction in a fodder scam case.
For NDA, Kumar’s return strengthens the alliance. The BJP that secured 29% of the votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha sweep of Bihar recorded a 4% drop in support in the next year’s assembly election, resulting in humiliating defeat.
The state BJP can now hope to push its advantage with Kumar’s clean image and effective governance to repeat the success of 2005, when it managed to increase its assembly tally from 53 to 91.
When Kumar joined the “grand alliance”, the BJP tally slipped to 53, a clear indication that on its own the party couldn’t pull much weight in Bihar.
The state made rapid gains in 2005 and 2010 under Kumar but he hasn’t managed to get much done in this term and that will be a challenge.
“With BJP back under Kumar’s excellent leadership model… Bihar will be back on growth path,” BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi said.
Harvard scholar Jonathan Phillips, who examined data from 314 Bihar villages that border UP and Bengal, said people were losing faith in government’s ability to deliver.
“Bihar has experienced a decade of extensive governance, but its sustainability is now uncertain,” Phillips said at a seminar last week.
Investment in education and health infrastructure has dropped, while obsession with prohibition and anti-dowry campaigns has brought development and policing to a standstill.
Will Kumar manage to put Bihar back on fast track to growth by the 2020 state election remains to be seen. With the BJP on his side, he may finally get Bihar a special status that will get him funds for development, something that the BJP could use to its advantage in 2019.