‘Bankable’ Nitish’s poll appeal now under cloud
Whatever the results, the narrative for the Bihar state election is set. The election is for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the tie-up between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal United (JD(U)), to lose. If the NDA does well, it will be due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If it does poorly, it will be due to chief minister Nitish Kumar.
The sudden dip in Nitish Kumar’s popularity is confirmed with data. The Centre for Developing Societies (CSDS)-Lokniti found that satisfaction with Nitish’s performance as CM dropped from 80% in the 2015 Bihar post-poll to 52% in the pre-election poll in Bihar. Standard political punditry attributes this to “anti-incumbency” — but that just means his popularity has dropped, it is not an explanation as to why. After all, Nitish does not seem to have faced the same anti-incumbency in 2005 or 2010. So why now?
Nitish Kumar has built his reputation as welfarist. Indeed, according to the Reserve Bank of India, Bihar’s social expenditure (a sum of social sector, development, and capital outlay) was more than 50% of its gross state domestic product (GSDP) in fiscal year 2019-2020, greater than any other large state in India. Since the election of Narendra Modi in 2014, we have seen long-serving welfarist chief ministers aligned to the BJP — like Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh — lose. And the BJP or its coalition has seen double-digit drops in vote percentage in state elections as compared to national elections.
In a recent paper written with my Centre for Policy Research (CPR) colleague Yamini Aiyar, we’ve argued that this has to do with the political centralisation of benefits and welfare schemes which are explicitly tied to the personage of Narendra Modi.
In short, from the 2000s onward, fiscal decentralisation coupled with welfarist chief ministers created a winning electoral combination for state-level leaders. In certain states, voters attributed newfound welfare benefits to their chief ministers and continued to vote them back to power. But the centralisation around Modi has changed the game. Voters attribute their welfare benefits to the Centre and Narendra Modi, leaving welfarist chief ministers — particularly those aligned with BJP — without their main political appeal.
The diminishing electoral appeal of Nitish Kumar has been evident ever since Modi came on the scene, even if we look beyond Nitish’s disastrous decision to contest the election alone in 2014. The above chart displays the contested vote share (the average vote share per assembly constituency contested) for the JD(U) in the 2010, 2015 state elections and the 2019 national election. The shaded boxes denote coalition partners for the JD(U). Notably, the JD(U) underperforms in contested vote share as compared to its major coalition partner in each election post-2014 (the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in 2015 and BJP in 2019) but not so in 2010.
The reasons for political appeal are difficult to discern from any polling data, but the CSDS-Lokniti pre-poll survey in Bihar offers some clues as to the relative political appeal of Nitish Kumar’s work and Narendra Modi’s work.
When respondents were asked upon whose work they will base their vote, 16% of voters said the Nitish government while 27% of voters said the Modi government (with 29% saying the MLA). When just looking at NDA’s supporters, 33% said they would base their vote on work done by the Nitish government, with 42% basing their vote on the Modi government (and just 8% on the MLA’s work). In short, in the electorate as a whole — and even among NDA supporters — the main political appeal lies with Narendra Modi even with the scale of welfarist and development expenditure from Nitish Kumar’s government.
As we look to the final results in the Bihar election, Nitish Kumar is saying is this will be his last election. Win or lose, the reality is that he is already finished. In a state in which politics has always relied on complicated caste calculations, Nitish does not command a formidable caste base, and his core political appeal has been lost to Narendra Modi. And his naked political opportunism has certainly not done him any favours.
The sudden demise of Nitish’s political appeal should be a lesson to chief ministers across India.
(The writer is an assistant professor, Ashoka University, and visiting senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research)
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