Ahead of Bihar Elections, Nitish Kumar Once Again Displays His Guile

In the absence of Lalu Prasad, the Bihar chief minister has been able to spin the narrative in his favour even as the COVID-19 crisis raises questions about governance.

Patna: Bihar’s wily chief minister Nitish Kumar is playing cat and mouse with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) which is already smarting under its senior leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh’s dissatisfaction and patriarch Lalu Prasad being jailed for over two and half years. Dealing a blow to his biggest rival, Nitish oversaw the defection of five MLCs.

Why did the MLCs join the JDU? Senior Patna-based journalist Kanhaiya Bhelari said, “Most of the MLCs are in contract or other businesses. They might have calculated that it was better to invest in the party that has the best possibility to retain power, so they can earn better dividends after the state elections.” Kanhaiya’s remarks may appear cynical but are not wide of the mark, given the enormous use of money in elections.

Nitish, who is also president of the Janata Dal (United) (JDU), is rich with the resources that staying in power for nearly 15 years has given him. He is also backed by the BJP, which relishes in paining Lalu Prasad—its most vocal opponent in India. The coalition has been confident that it will retain power, which may have helped lure the five RJD’s MLCs across the floor on June 23.

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar with the five RJD MLCs [Radha Charan Shah, Sanjay Prasad, Dilip Rai, Md Qamar Alam and Ranvijay Kumar Singh] who defected to the JD(U) in Patna, June 23, 2020. Photo: PTI

The defections were followed by the RJD and JDU exchanging barbs. Tejaswhi Yadav, the Lalu-Rabri scion, exuded confidence and downplayed the issue. “The change of loyalty by five MLCs will make no difference on the voter base of the RJD,” said Tejashwi, who is also the leader of opposition in the Bihar assembly.

Meanwhile, the JDU used the opportunity to take aim at RJD’s ‘family rule’. Its spokesperson Sanjay Singh said that the MLCs felt “suffocated” under the “family rule of the RJD” and joined the JDU because it represents susashan (good governance).

Keeping aside the political statements of the two parties, what is cardinal to note here is the fact that Nitish—a deft player of tact, guile and camouflage in such situations—has unleashed a behind-the-scenes operation to enervate the RJD in the run-up to the elections, likely to be held before the end of November.

Also Read: Why Nitish Kumar Is Indispensable for the Winning Side in Bihar

Nitish’s political game

For over 85 days, Nitish Kumar remained inside his colonial-era 1, Aney Marg residence, operating through social media sites and regular updates about his activities from the Information and Public Relations Department (IPRD).

During this period, the lives of many people have turned upside down. Pramod Kumar, a truck driver from Haibaspur Panchayat in Danapur suburb of Patna, returned home with 45 other migrant workers at his own cost during COVID-19 lockdown. He is now battling for survival in his village with no job and work. Nishant Karpatne, a private coaching centre teacher from Digha in Patna, has lost his job because his institute was closed, like a thousand others.

In total, about 30 lakh migrant workers have returned home and are sitting idle. The tally of COVID-19 on affected patients in Bihar has shot up to 10,392 as of Thursday.

As Bihar was thrown into crisis due to the returning migrants, many political leaders began interacting with the people and were also infected by the virus. Leaders such as RJD’s Raghvanshand, five legislators and leaders from the BJP have tested positive.

Nitish, however, has kept himself safe and healthy. His most recent public appearance was at Bihar’s legislature premises, welcoming the newly elected legislators. He soon returned to the well-guarded precincts of his residence.

When over 11 crore people from Bhagalpur in the East to Sasaram in the West and Nawada in the south to Sitamarhi in the East are battling the impact of COVID-19, Nitish Kumar has kept his eyes focussed on the elections. He is deftly setting the pawns on the chessboard of politics to win the elections.

Getting the five RJD MLCs to his side was part of his well-calculated game to enrich the coffers of his party. The defectors include Radha Charan Shah, who was under investigation for being the kingpin of a narcotics syndicate, and Sanjay Prasad, a rich contractor from north Bihar. Both are said to have deep pockets.

An opportunity

In the hands of an experienced politician like Lalu Prasad, the RJD could perhaps have cornered Nitish for prioritising the elections rather than focussing on the health crisis. However, Tejashwi Yadav is too inexperienced to match the CM’s manoeuvres, which he can employ in any given situation.

A beleaguered Tejashwi Yadav has lashed out at Nitish for doing everything to win elections. “He has left the people of the state at the mercy of god during the coronavirus pandemic,” he said. But it does not appear that he has been able to capitalise on the government’s neglect.

There is no denying that the RJD is the strongest party when it comes to the support base on the ground, at least in the assembly elections. In 2015, the RJD and JDU contested 101 seats each in an alliance. The RJD won 80 against the latter’s 70. The BJP, which had swept the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, was only able to win 54 seats in the 242-member assembly. The success of the alliance is attributed not to Nitish, but to Lalu Prasad’s charm and appeal.

Also Read: Bihar: Defection of Five RJD MLCs Sets off Grumblings About Leadership Crisis

This time around, the RJD can bank on Tejashwi’s youthful exuberance. It is also certain to receive the support of the Yadav and Muslim communities, which constitute over 30% of the state’s voters. But without Lalu Prasad’s experienced head to counter Nitish’s machinations, the party has an uphill battle.

“Lalu Prasad would have unleashed the ‘elephant-cassowary’ game to counter Nitish’s ‘cat and mouse’ game,” remarked Jayant Jigyasu, a young RJD activist and researcher at Jawaharlal Nehru University, referring to a Ruskin Bond story about mismatched opponents. In the story, a cassowary bird (an Emu-like bird) kicks a young elephant and injures it. The next time it tries to attack the elephant, the young jumbo easily picks the bird up and flings it away, maiming it.

Therefore, it is vital to recognise that at the root of RJD’s troubles – whether it is the defection of leaders or complaints about a lack of leadership – is the absence of Lalu Prasad. It is unlikely that Lalu will be released on bail before the elections, which will encourage Nitish.

Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. Credit: Reuters

Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. Photo: Reuters

Government machinery at work

While the chief minister is working to turn the political tide in his party’s favour, the well-oiled state machinery is using the advertisement-dependent, pliant media to its advantage.

Local newspapers are filled with reports fed by the government’s hyperactive IPRD about the government’s “effectiveness” in combating the virus. The government has played up the fact that the recovery rate in Bihar is 77.52%, against the national rate of 58.8%.

To assure returning migrant workers and those rendered unemployed by the lockdown, a release issued by the chief minister’s office also claims that as many as 22.84 lakh ration cards have been prepared. They are being distributed, the release said. Observers have also noted that the Centre – led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – is doing its part to rally the electorate around the ruling coalition.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and co-author of Gopalganj to Raisina: My Political JourneyLalu Prasad’s autobiography.