Nitish Kumar and Bihar’s oscillating political landscape
This is the third time Kumar has switched sides between the forces of Mandal (RJD) and Kamandal (BJP) in the state to remain in power. Given Kumar’s past promiscuity how does the JD (U) even manage to make such shifts?
Nitish Kumar and his party Janata Dal (United) or JD (U) have once again done a political somersault in Bihar and dumped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to join hands with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and its smaller allies. This is the third time Kumar has switched sides between the forces of Mandal (RJD) and Kamandal (BJP) in the state to remain in power. Given his past promiscuity how does the JD (U) even manage to make such shifts? The answer to this question is to be found in the unique political alignments in the state.
No party has been able to achieve a majority in Bihar after 1995
The JD (U), BJP and the RJD are the three major political players in the state of Bihar. Since the 1995 assembly elections, the three parties combined have always had a more than two-third seat share in every assembly or Lok Sabha election in the state. This analysis excludes assembly constituencies which were carved out to make the state of Jharkhand in 2000. However, none of these three parties have been able to manage a majority of seats since 1995 when the Janata Dal under the leadership of Lalu Prasad Yadav won 63% of the seats with a vote share of just 32.2%. This makes it a necessity that at least two of these come together in an alliance to form a government.
All three major parties have burnt their hands in trying to go solo or with smaller allies
At some point of time, each of the three major political parties in the state has tried to contest without aligning with one of the other two. The RJD contested every election without the BJP and the JD (U) except the 2015 assembly election, which it did with Kumar’s party. The JD (U) contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections without the BJP and the RJD; and the BJP contested the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2015 assembly elections without the JD(U). The results have been disastrous for the party contesting alone except for the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. While the BJP did very well in a tripartite contest in the 2014 elections, its fortunes dropped drastically when the JD (U) and the RJD came together in the 2015 assembly elections. Among these three parties, the JD (U) paid the biggest price for going solo in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when it won just two Lok Sabha constituencies.
What exactly does Nitish Kumar bring to an alliance ?
To say that it is just his pro-development image is a half-truth at best. If CSDS-Lokiniti post poll surveys are to be believed, Tejashwi Yadav had a one percentage point lead over Nitish Kumar when it came to the question of the most preferred chief minister candidate in the 2020 elections. To answer this question completely, one needs to understand the social calculus of politics in Bihar.
The RJD and the BJP have a core voter base of their own. For the BJP it is the 15% upper caste population of the state and for the RJD it is the 30% Muslim-Yadav population. Broadly speaking, the core support base of either is unlikely to support the other. It is in this divided political landscape that Nitish Kumar’s JD (U) has carved out an almost indispensable space in Bihar’s politics by emerging as a rallying point for lower OBCs (other backward classes)and a large section of the state’s scheduled caste population. Ironical as it may sound, the fact that Kumar himself comes from a caste group (Kurmi) which as a very small share in the state’s population (less than 5% according to most estimates) has helped him achieve this consolidation without the fear of his own caste becoming the dominant partner in the party’s social coalition. A comparison of the 2015 and 2020 assembly election results shows that the support of non-core supporters of the BJP and the RJD mattered the most in deciding the results.
To be sure, Nitish Kumar’s biggest strength in politics is also his biggest weakness. Because he does not have a significant core support in social terms, his rainbow coalition of the subalterns is always vulnerable to being undermined both at the level of leadership -- one of the rumours doing the rounds is that the BJP was trying to break JD (U) MLAs -- as well as in day to day life. The latter is a distinct possibility when a dominant caste party is sharing power with the JD(U). Given the BJP’s dominance at the national level which gives it an edge in attracting political leaders of other parties including allies, and the RJD’s image of being a party of a social group which is prone to strong-arm tactics, the JD (U)’s latest move might mute the first contradiction and sharpen the second one going forward.