A Deeper Look Into the Bihar Polls Will Reveal the Enduring Importance of Nitish Kumar

When compared to the two other heroes of the Bihar election, Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan, the Bihar chief minister strikes a distinct chord of his own.

The focus in the closely contested assembly election in Bihar has been as much on Nitish Kumar, Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan as on Narendra Modi when it came to analyses on the leadership factor in determining the outcome.

For keen observers of Bihar politics, it presented an opportunity to compare the three leaders but also drew attention to the importance of state-level leadership. It is a factor often neglected in election studies. This is because of the following three reasons:

First, the abiding influence of the ‘national narrative’ in public perception since the early days tends to undermine the role of ‘regional’ (and therefore somehow less significant) leaders, however important a role they might have played in their respective states politics, especially after the emergence of states as relatively autonomous electoral units having their own specificities.

Second, the overemphasis on the identities and identity politics in post-Mandal India, especially in the Hindi heartland means that every effective state leader is invariably viewed as a part of wider group phenomenon. It is therefore hardly appreciated that a leader can make an electoral impact also on the basis of his political skills, oration and certain charisma.

Third, reminiscent of the person-centred leadership of Indira Gandhi, due to the colossal figure of Narendra Modi, every single BJP victory in states is credited to his leadership with hardly any credit to the state leaders. 

Sifting through the media reports still streaming in, and also looking at CSDS-Lokniti poll surveys, it becomes apparent that all the three state leaders contributed in their own ways to the elections outcomes.

Also read: Nitish Kumar May Be Quiet Now, But His Compromise With BJP Rings Loud

However, while the two young leaders leading their respective parties’ campaigns on their own for the first time as ‘inheritors’ received much approval in reports and write-ups, Nitish Kumar at 69 years of age, has not. Yet he is the only one of the famed triumvirate of post-Mandal Bihar to wage what he called his last electoral battle.

Nitish Kumar at the JD(U) party office in Patna on November 12. Photo: PTI

He was called the ‘fall guy’ especially after the exit polls conducted by media houses, which notably went horribly wrong. He was described as lacklustre, as past his prime and as the target of massive public anger for not having done enough for migrant workers who had walked home hungry and without any opportunity to earn their livelihood in the state.

He was seen as someone who had become too arrogant in his public life. Incidents like sloganeering against him during the rallies, onions thrown at him and he losing his cool and using intemperate language in rallies, probably for the first time in his political life, were highlighted to project the image of a leader who depended on his erstwhile bête noir Narendra Modi. 

Tejashwi Yadav (31) on the other hand, was projected as the crowd favourite. He was noted for showing glimpses of his father’s famed oratorial skill, wit and sarcasm, the ability to connect easily with the masses and a boundless energy culminating in 247 rallies in 20 days.

What was widely commented was his strategic decision to keep away the Yadav family including his mother and two siblings from the grand alliance’s campaigns. This includes his maverick brother Tej Pratap and his sister, Misa Bharati.

Also read: The Rise of Tejashwi Yadav Signals Significant Change in Bihar Politics

Even Lalu Yadav (or Mandal) to whom Tejashwi and his party arguably owes their assured support of the social constituency of Muslims and Yadavs (around 30% of the state’s population) was neither remembered during the rallies nor was his photo on display at campaigns.

This was widely hailed as a smart move to ward off opposition’s  criticism that he was a dynast. He was even called the ‘yuvraj of jungle raj’ by none other than the prime minister.

Tejashwi Yadav at a RJD press conference after the Bihar elections. Visible are posters of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rabri Devi. Photo: PTI

Also praised was his political astuteness in speaking of people belonging from ‘A to Z’ and not just ‘M to Y’.

Tejaswi received maximum praise for taking his father’s Mandal politics and raking up substantive issues like ‘padhai, kamai, dawai, and sinchai’ (education, income, medicine and irrigation), which are extremely relevant to the underdeveloped state.

The massive crowd in his public meetings did not come only to see a helicopter or “Lalu’s son” as some sceptics argued, but also to listen to him.

If not for the RJD ally Congress’s poor performance or Owaisi-led AIMIM’s success in the five Muslim majority constituencies in Seemanchal, he would easily have become one of the youngest chief ministers in electoral history of India and third chief minister from the same political family after Abdullahs of Jammu and Kashmir. 

Also read: Why AIMIM Is Unlikely to Emerge as a Major Force in the Bihar Elections

These polls were not a mean achievement for a greenhorn who never showed much promise either as deputy to Nitish during 2015-2017 or in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. After remaining incognito during the lockdown and in the wake of media reports of a family feud in the absence of his ailing father, there was a time when he had all but been written off politically by pundits.

So Tejashwi’s meteoritic rise in such a short span of time after what was perceived as an already lost election is incredible.

CSDS-Lokniti surveys held at the time of the assembly election showed him receiving better approval rates (42%) than even Nitish Kumar (38%) as the chief ministerial choice. 

Chirag Paswan (38), another debutant chief campaigner for his party, had his own axe to grind for the way Nitish, the old family rival, had lured away the party MLAs in 2005. Nitish had driven a wedge in the party’s social constituency by creating new administrative categories of Mahadalits (minus Paswans) and Atipichda (MBC) for reservation and other benefits.

Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Chirag Paswan along with party leaders after a a party meeting in New Delhi, October 4, 2020. Photo: PTI

Unlike Tejashwi who attacked Nitish politically by calling him a scheming turncoat and tired leader unable to govern, Chirag launched personal attacks, even threatening to send him to jail on corruption charges like the Srijan scam.

Also read: Bihar Elections: Nitish Kumar Is Wrong to Blame Chirag Paswan for JD(U)’s Poor Show

Despite his party winning only one seat, Chirag has been credited with successfully playing the devious game of the BJP to cut Nitish Kumar to size. The move has made it possible for Chirag to join the BJP in the coming elections if the BJP decides to dump the JD(U) post-Nitish Kumar. 

Calling himself Modi’s ‘Hanuman,’ Chirag shied away from attacking the BJP or putting up his party’s candidates against it (except in five constituencies). He conveniently overlooked that the BJP has been in power in alliance with the JD(U) for almost two decades except for two years (2015-2017) and therefore was complicit in the state’s poor performance.

In a reciprocal gesture, the BJP leadership including Modi targeted Tejashwi and not him. LJP has also remained NDA partner in Delhi. On a positive note, Chirag, gearing up for a long political innings and not only as a Dalit leader like his deceased father, also raised issues related to development and welfare, and like Tejashwi, tried to forge broader social alliances by giving tickets to ‘upper’ caste candidates in two-thirds of the 137 seats the party contested.

While poll pundits enthused by the exit polls had a field day highlighting what they had perceived as a massive swell of anger against Nitish Kumar, the poll verdict if minutely dissected would show that if the LJP would not have put up the candidates against JD(U) candidates, the party would have emerged as the largest in the state.

The prime minister in his congratulatory speech to BJP workers referred to silent voters’ support to the NDA. It can be argued on the basis of the CSDS-Lokniti survey that most of these voters belonged to the lower OBC and Mahadalit groups, the social constituency actively cultivated by Nitish Kumar after coming to power in 2005.

The survey also showed that the Dalits, EBC and ‘upper’ caste women voters preferred the Nitish-led NDA over the Tejashwi-led grand alliance, as they had in the last polls.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves via chopper after addressing an election rally, in Samastipur, Sunday, Nov. 1, 2020. Photo: PTI

Prohibition policy and the welfare measures undertaken for young women, and women’s safety have been the hallmarks of Nitish Kumar administration. Added to this was the impact of Modi’s impressive public rallies which saw the fence sitters going for the BJP, many of them not happy with Nitish but also scared of the return of Lalu’s ‘jungle raj’.

The JD(U) also benefitted from the transfer of the ‘upper’ caste BJP vote to it, though as the survey shows, a significant minority of ‘upper’ castes did vote for the LJP, which as mentioned above, had given many tickets to BJP’s ‘upper’ castes rebels.

Also another segment of silent voters came from the urban middle classes, mostly ‘upper’ caste, who seemed to have decided in favour of the JD(U) candidates if not for anything else than due to the fear of the return of the Lalu regime’s lawlessness.

With all his failures, Nitish Kumar has been widely credited for bringing about a turnaround in Bihar. The state is often given up as a ‘failed’ state due to its vicious poverty, caste wars, messy politics, corruption and lawlessness.

In popular psyche, as every non-resident middle aged Bihari who has had to migrate for education or jobs would testify, the term ‘Bihari’ is a pejorative. Propelled by the very same political forces and nurtured in the same cultural milieu as Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar as the state’s chief minister with able support from low profile BJP deputy chief minister Sushil Modi attempted to change this. He also attempted to adopt a leadership model that has thrived on the secular idioms of development and welfare.

As for now, Nitish Kumar certainly seems to be the NDA’s choice as the best bet to govern the the state. However, how long this will remain so is a moot question, given the aspirations he has raised across the board in such a highly politicised state.

Many of these aspirations remained unfulfilled, which is reason enough to conjure the image of Tejashwi and Chirag waiting in the wings.

And let us not forget the BJP, the largest party in power in the state. Very soon, it will need a leader who can command statewide support. 

Ashutosh Kumar is professor of the department of political science at Panjab University.