How Nitish Kumar returned to power
Ending the intense speculation of the past month, the results of the assembly elections in Bihar are finally out. Nitish Kumar has added yet another feather to his cap by winning the confidence of the people of Bihar for the fourth time, a rare feat in Indian politics. Of course, the strength of Janata Dal (United) is now reduced, but the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has performed well, thanks to the image of Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi as an able leader.
The JD(U)’s relatively poor performance is easily understandable, as it had to fight two opponents — the Mahagatbandhan (grand alliance) of the Opposition on one hand, and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) on the other, unlike the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had to fight only the Opposition.
What is the larger meaning of the NDA’s win?
To begin with, Nitish Kumar’s return only reiterates that anti-incumbency is not an unbeatable force, provided the incumbent government has performed well during its tenure — irrespective of the length of this tenure. Competing political parties may have varying ideological orientations to attract voters, but more than anything else, citizens are interested in a rapid-and-inclusive development process. They opt for political change only when that basic agenda is left unserved. Although identity-based mobilisation is a part of Bihar politics, this election was essentially a referendum on Nitish Kumar’s government of the last 15 years. The government’s record, to be sure, has gaps — especially in the realm of employment generation that affects young citizens most deeply. But its overall performance was ultimately appreciated, especially for a state that carries a huge historical burden of underdevelopment and is constrained by its poor financial resources.
During the campaign, the NDA focused on the key components of its good governance story, both in terms of the “minimal” function of the government (maintenance of law and order) and the developmental function of the government (economic growth and welfare programmes).
On the law and order front, Nitish Kumar’s government convincingly argued that, thanks to its relentless effort, Bihar had come out of the so called jungle raj which characterised the previous regime. The present result indicates that the fear of jungle raj is still deeply embedded in the minds of the electorate. Indeed, once it became known that the Opposition alliance had performed well in the first phase, the NDA planned a conscious counter-mobilisation against the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), using the slogan of jungle raj. To be fair, one must note that the law and order situation has deteriorated in the last five years, but citizens do realise that it has improved substantially since 2005, when Nitish Kumar started his regime.
On the development front, too, Nitish Kumar has performed more than satisfactorily. The Gross State Domestic Product growth rate in Bihar has not only been high over the last 15 years, but also been one of the highest (above 9%) in the last five years. This is the result of high-development expenditure of the state government, the consequent strengthening of the physical infrastructure, and a conducive environment for economic activities. Infrastructure development has included improvement in both road networks (including rural roads) and the power scenario, appreciated widely even by the chief minister’s critics. Along with this process of economic growth, the state government has also implemented a number of welfare programmes, the most recent being those under “Saat Nischay”, which covers, among other measures, the provision of electricity, piped drinking water, approach roads and toilets for all households. This is actually micromanagement of the development process. Unfortunately, the state government has not been equally responsive to the need to improve the educational and health infrastructure of the state.
Besides the issue of development, the people of Bihar, particularly its disadvantaged sections, are also concerned about social justice. Admittedly, it is Lalu Prasad who first gave voice to the subaltern class, but Nitish Kumar consciously carried forward that agenda, sometime at the cost of offending his more socio-economically privileged supporters. He brought the Extreme Backward Classes (EBCs) or Annexure-I castes — they constitute over 30% of the state’s population — into the governance and executive structure of the state. For example, for EBCs, he introduced 20% reservation in panchayats and 21% in judiciary. This consistent outreach led to decisive EBC support for the NDA. With an eye on empowering women, Nitish Kumar introduced 50% reservation for them in panchayats and 35% reservation in government jobs. One should also remember here the historic decision of Nitish Kumar in 2016 regarding prohibition, just after the elections. It did harm the state’s finances, but it was more than compensated by the benefit it brought to poor women, often victims of alcoholism of their menfolk. This has clearly drawn a large number of women voters towards the NDA.
In the next five years, the new government will face serious challenges. To meet urgent priorities — such as the creation of employment opportunities, strengthening the education and health sectors and other development needs — the state government has to mobilise additional resources, but here lies a problem. The negative economic impact of Covid-19 has not only meant depletion of the state’s resources, but also affected transfers from the Union government. One has to wait and watch to find out how the state government negotiates this difficult path.
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