Reacting for the first time after the Janata Dal (United)’s recent by-poll defeat in Kurhani, Bihar, chief minister Nitish Kumar blamed his former ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, of conspiring against JD(U) candidates in the 2020 assembly election when the two parties had contested as partners. He said so at the National Council election of the party in Patna on December 11.
Despite this allegation made two years after the event, the JD(D)’s inability to retain the Kurhani assembly seat in Muzaffarpur district is not just a defeat in a by-poll – it has exposed Nitish Kumar’s inherent weakness at a time when there is a dire need for him to emerge as a national-level leader. Ever since he crossed over to the Grand Alliance on August 9-10, 2022 he has been working overtime to bring all the opposition parties under one umbrella as a challenge to the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government in 2024. He appears to be losing his magic touch and bargaining position; the caste equation he wove did not work in Kurhani.
This defeat cannot be compared to the loss suffered by alliance partner Rashtriya Janata Dal in the Gopalganj by-election last November. There, the RJD lost by 1,794 votes to the BJP, which has been winning this seat since 2005. Gopalganj was already a BJP stronghold; the party also got sympathy votes in favour of the deceased MLA’s wife.
In contrast, the Kurhani seat was won by Anil Kumar Sahni of the RJD in the 2020 assembly polls. The seat was vacated
after Sahni’s disqualification, following his conviction in a fraud case. As a gesture of goodwill, the RJD left this seat for the JD(U), which fielded Manoj Kushwaha, a former legislator.
It is natural for the rank and file of the RJD to feel upset and say that had the party contested on its own, it would have won the seat. It was none else but Sahni who sought Nitish Kumar’s resignation. He said that the JD(U) gave the ticket to an OBC candidate, whereas the constituency is dominated by the Extremely Backward Castes. Sahni himself is from an EBC community.
After all, the RJD under the leadership of young Tejashwi Prasad Yadav emerged as the single largest party with 75 seats in 2020. The Grand Alliance could have returned to power had the Congress performed better. Besides, party supremo Lalu Prasad was then in jail.
Interestingly, it was in April this year that the RJD snatched the Bochaha assembly seat in the same Muzaffarpur district a in a by-election from the BJP, when the latter was still in alliance with the JD(U). The RJD single-handedly defeated the BJP by over 36,000 votes.
Not just RJD leaders – even many JD(U) workers are blaming the wrong choice of candidate for the humiliating defeat to BJP’s Kedar Gupta by a margin of over 3,649 votes.
The truth is that there are several other reasons for this result. The JD(U) can not blame the RJD, which not only gave up its own seat, but left no stone unturned to ensure Kushwaha’s victory. Tejashwi himself went twice to Kurhani, when the fact is that Nitish Kumar addressed only one meeting here. In Gopalganj, Nitish had not campaigned for the RJD candidate, citing health reasons.
The debacle in Kurhani further confirmed Nitish’s repeated failures to win an election. In the 2020 assembly polls, his party, as a BJP partner, could win only 43 seats against 74 by its saffron partner. The JD(U) had then contested 122 seats, while the BJP contested the other 121.
In the 2015 assembly elections, which Nitish fought in alliance with the RJD and Congress, his party’s performance was not as good as that of Lalu Prasad’s outfit. This was notwithstanding the fact that the Bihar chief minister had sought election strategist Prashant Kishor’s services.
The JD(U) bagged 71 seats while the RJD 80, when the fact was that both the parties fielded candidates in 101 seats. Congress won 27 seats, while it contested in 41. Thus the Grand Alliance tally then was 178 in the house of 243.
In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the JD(U) could win only two out of the 40 seats in Bihar. As Nitish had snapped ties with the BJP a year before, he failed to repeat the performance of the 2010 assembly and 2009 Lok Sabha polls. The NDA under his leadership had swept Bihar in these years by winning 206 out of 243 assembly seats and 32 out of 40 Lok Sabha seats.
The fact is that while Nitish can be a chief ministerial face of either the NDA or Grand Alliance, his party lacks a proper organisational structure, network and discipline. In the NDA years, the booth management and campaign of JD(U) candidates during elections was largely left in the hands of the BJP cadres. Barring in his home turf of Nalanda district, which is dominated by Kurmis, the JD(U) is organisationally weak across the state. There may be voters, but no dedicated workers.
In the recent organisational election, there was large-scale infighting and display of muscle power within the JD(U) in districts like Gaya, Gopalganj etc. Curiously, many party leaders blamed the BJP for this disturbance. This goes to suggest that BJP elements have infiltrated the party and can damage it from within. This factor may have worked in the Kurhani defeat too.
The new alliance partner, the RJD, too is not a cadre-based party. But on the occasion of elections, Lalu’s castemen (Yadavs) take up the responsibility of election management. In Kurhani, the Yadavs are not very numerically strong. Still, if Manoj Kushwaha could muster 73,073 votes, it was more because of the efforts of RJD workers and less to do with the JD(U)’s own campaign.
Apart from this, Nitish will have to realise that it will take time for him to bring about a new social realignment. The upper castes are not appreciative of his decision to desert the BJP and cross over to the RJD.
Rather than just blaming the BJP for conspiring against his party’s candidates in 2020, Nitish needs to look into why the Grand Alliance batsmen, especially of his own party, are getting out regularly when the pitch is favourable for them.
Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist.