In Bihar, the eclipse of Brand Nitish Kumar, writes Barkha Dutt

Irrespective of the outcome in the assembly elections, the rage against the Bihar chief minister is palpable — and he only has himself to blame
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar at an election rally, West Champaran, Bihar, October 29(SANTOSH KUMAR/HTPHOTO)
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar at an election rally, West Champaran, Bihar, October 29(SANTOSH KUMAR/HTPHOTO)
Updated on Oct 30, 2020 07:33 PM IST
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For a man once called the Indian Obama by the historian and public intellectual Ramachandra Guha, the diminishing of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar could not be more dramatic. I am not a pundit or a psephologist and thus not in the business of calling elections. But after some time on the ground in Bihar, I am certain of this: There is a groundswell of rage against the Bihar chief minister.

In some ways, there is a reassuring message in this anger for the health of our democracy.

During the national lockdown, as I chronicled the stories of migrant workers fleeing the cities for their villages on foot, I remember saying at an international seminar that Nitish Kumar, once the poster-boy for Indian liberals, had been the worst chief minnister among all others. I said this because he was the only state leader who showed an unforgivable reluctance to bring back his own people to the state. In the coaching town of Kota, Rajasthan, I recall meeting dozens of students from Bihar, desperate to get home. Every other chief minister had sent buses t o ferry their children back. Except Nitish Kumar.

And yet, each time I would discuss the prospects of the elections with friends, they would point to the caste configuration of the state and insist that victory for the Nitish Kumar-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance was foretold.

Those numbers might yet yield the same outcome. And there is the Narendra Modi factor that has swung state elections in the past. But irrespective of who wins, Brand Nitish is over. And the anger against him tells you that the Indian voter still cares about the issues that should matter the most in a democracy — jobs, economy, performance and governance.

And while almost everyone agrees that his weakening is, at least, in part because of his ally, the BJP, having decided to lead Project Finish Nitish, the truth is that the chief minister has only himself to blame. Whether it is his ideological hollowness, his political flip-flops, or a passive, asleep-at-the-wheel response to the migrant crisis, Nitish Kumar looks like he is slowly fading to black.

Alongside his descent, the rise of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Tejashwi Yadav tells a parallel story. The 31-year-old’s promise of jobs and his singular focus on the economy has struck a chord with young voters; 24% of Bihar’s voters are between the ages of 18 and 29 and plagued by delayed examinations and degrees and then an absence of professional opportunities. His rebooting of the RJD is intriguing and he is seeking to go well beyond the Muslim-Yadav boundaries of the party his father, Lalu Prasad, built.

In fact, the story of the Bihar polls is best told by the giant hoardings of Yadav and Prime Minister (PM) Modi that stare down at the city of Patna, often side by side. In Modi’s artwork, there is no sign of Nitish Kumar. And, in Yadav’s posters, there is no sign of Lalu Prasad.

When I asked Yadav about this rebranding exercise, his answer was diplomatic but significant. “My father’s politics were formed around the concept of social justice,” he told me, “mine is a demand for economic justice. How long will Biharis have to go out of the state for everything — their padhai, kamai and dawai (studies, earnings, medicines)?”

As we spoke, we were walking along a narrow corridor lined with photographs in his house. On the wall, I spotted one of him with Nitish Kumar. The picture had not been taken down, even in election season. “Nitish Kumar is not a politician, he is a bureaucrat,” he said laughingly of the mounted image on his wall. “But now he is a spent force.”

The other young man who has provided a twist to the plot in the Bihar script is the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP)’s 37-year-old Chirag Paswan. The man who tried his hand at Bollywood before immersing himself in full-time politics has emerged as the X-factor in the polls. Whether or not he is able to translate the crowds he is drawing into significant seats, his declaration that the BJP-LJP will form the next government in Bihar has created a seed of doubt, even among loyal BJP voters. A shopkeeper in Mokama, a Modi loyalist, told me that Nitish Kumar got his vote in the 2019 election only because of the BJP. “Now, with the entry of Chirag, it doesn’t look like even the BJP wants Nitish. Maybe this time we can give Tejashwi a chance.”

There is a shift in the wind in Bihar. Even those who say they are voting to bring back the Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance demand a new chief minister.

Nitish Kumar should be worried by the writing on the wall in Bihar.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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Thursday, December 02, 2021