As BJP's Hindutva Plank Loses Steam, Nitish Kumar Has the Edge in Bihar

The Bihar chief minister is a hard bargainer and will utilise the BJP's drubbing in the Delhi polls to make the saffron party the lesser alliance partner.

The BJP’s Hindutva agenda suffered a major setback after the Aam Aadmi Party registered a resounding victory, winning 62 out of 70 seats in the Delhi assembly elections.

The saffron party’s recent drubbing is also likely to impact its prospects in Bihar vis-a-vis its relationship with the Janata Dal (United) and its chief Nitish Kumar. Many observers are already queuing up to declare that it may now concede ‘supremacy’ to the Bihar chief minister in the upcoming assembly polls.

The Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP’s victory has, suddenly, relegated the saffron party back to the status of a subordinate. This is reminiscent of the situation during the 2005 Bihar assembly elections, when it meekly acquiesced to Nitish Kumar’s plank of “nyay ke sath vikas (growth with justice)” in the broader frame of socialism and secularism.

The central cog in the A.B. Vajpayee-L.K. Advani machine and the BJP’s party affairs in-charge in Bihar, Arun Jaitley had formulated a strategy that put Nitish at the forefront of the NDA in Bihar. The saffron party conceded over 140 seats of 243 to the JDU and, thus, the Nitish Kumar-led NDA trounced the entrenched Lalu-Rabri regime in two bitterly contested elections—first in February 2005 and then in November 2005.

So pronounced was Nitish’s weight that the BJP meekly assented to the JD(U)’s thought and practice. BJP ministers were subservient to the wish of Nitish, who commanded steadfast trust amongst the party’s top brass, Vajpayee and Advani.

Also read: Bihar: People May Be Tired of Nitish, but a BJP CM Unlikely to Solve Problems

The first phase of the NDA rule – that lasted until 2013 when Nitish rejected Narendra Modi’s emergence as leader of the saffron party and dumped the BJP – was largely seen as one that witnessed all-round progress in Bihar with the chief minister empowering the extremely backward classes (EBCs) and Mahadalits on the principle of “growth with justice” and giving a proportionate share to minorities in the power structure.

Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. Photo: PTI

He earned the goodwill of minorities by re-opening cases from the 1989 Bhagalpur riots, getting the culprits punished and giving compensation to the survivors of the riots. Nitish also executed fast-paced infrastructural developments in terms of building moribund roads, schools, hospitals, higher educational institutions, electric powerhouses and power supply lines.

While the emergence of Narendra Modi and the BJP’s consecutive victories in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 and 2019 may have helped the saffron party rewrite the rules of constitutional governance, it simply derailed the process of development in Bihar.

Politics surpassed governance and Nitish Kumar dumped the BJP to join hands with the RJD-Congress in 2015 only to come back to the NDA in 2017, which now had the BJP aggressively carrying out its divisive agenda.

But as history repeats itself, the BJP’s trump card of Hindutva is increasingly returning marginal dividends. Its recent defeat in two states – first in Jharkhand and then in Delhi – after invoking the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) has put a snag in its ambitions of overtaking Nitish in Bihar.

Though the JD(U) lost both the seats it contested – Burari and Sangam Vihar – in Delhi to AAP, Nitish seems to now have an upper hand courtesy the BJP’s massive defeat. A shrewd player in power politics, Nitish is hardly known to lose the bargaining chip in such situations.

Also Read: Ahead of Bihar Assembly Elections, Owaisi and Bhim Army Forge Dalit-Muslim Unity

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP and JDU contested an equal number seats in Bihar – 17 each. The BJP won all the 17 seats while the JDU won 16. A section of BJP leaders attributed the victory of JD(U) candidates to the popularity of Narendra Modi and the Hindutva-laced campaign by Amit Shah.

Various RSS wings began carrying out “operations” in a bid to fuel hate against the Muslims in the hinterland and polarise Hindus. Union ministers like Giriraj Singh and Ashwini Choubey repeatedly spat venom against minorities and issued calls of “Pakistan jaao” to petrified Muslims. Saffron elements, through their ‘social programmes’, tried to inject poison into Bihar’s hinterlands which also witnessed instances of communal clashes.

But Nitish may have the upper hand now. It’s time for the Union home minister, Amit Shah to ditch his aggression and take a leaf out of Arun Jaitely’s book that worked in Bihar in 2005. It remains to be seen how Amit Shah will adapt to the new situation in Bihar.

The BJP on account of dilly-dallying on the issue of reservation is, apparently, losing the trust and support of Dalits and OBCs. There is youth unrest all around including in the state of Bihar after the Modi government failed to fulfil its promise of jobs and employment and began substituting it with emotive issues.

Nitish Lalu

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar in happier times. Photo: PTI

In contrast, Nitish has still retained his image as that of a performing chief minister. After all, reasonably better roads, the improved condition of hospitals in the state, better electric power and water supply, toilets in rural homes coupled with a sharp decline in the student dropout rate in schools and an effective grievance redressal system that has won a national award will all work to Nitish Kumar’s advantage. Moreover, the added benefit of TINA (There Is No Alternative) will also bolster his support.

Also read: Tejashwi Yadav Fought the 2019 Elections With 2020 in Mind – and It Backfired

Despite his long stint in jail, Lalu Prasad and his RJD also continue to be a strong political force at the ground level. With the Yadavs and Muslims, who constitute nearly 30% of the state’s voters, still behind RJD, Lalu has a very effective social capital but his successor, Tejashwi Yadav, despite showing an initial spark, has a long way to go before he can match Nitish’s administrative acumen and experience.

A sharp learner in the maze of intricate politics, Nitish will, probably, review his party’s decision to contest elections in Delhi in an alliance with the BJP. His decision fuelled infighting within the party and lead to the expulsion of the party’s intellectual face and author, Pavan Varma and election strategist, Prashant Kishor.

Nitish will want to think twice before taking his alliance with the BJP beyond Bihar from now on.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and co-author of the book Gopalganj to Raisina: My Political Journey, Lalu Prasad’s autobiography.