The Nitish factor in political calculus

Had the Congress been pragmatic enough to engage with Nitish Kumar, the results could have been quite different. But even a resurging RJD couldn’t stop NDA from winning Bihar
Representational image
Representational imageExpress illustration | Sourav Roy

Bihar continues to confound keen observers of the state’s politics. Since the NDA had won 39 seats out of the state’s 40 seats in 2019, it was the general expectation that the alliance’s seats would decline in view of a growing anti-incumbency sentiment. An energetic campaign by the INDIA bloc had added to the expectation.

There were other reasons, too. The JDU-RJD government of Nitish Kumar as chief minister and Tejashwi as his deputy had successfully conducted a caste survey in the state in 2023 and carried it to its logical conclusion by raising the reservation limit from 50 percent to 65 percent. This became a part of Rahul Gandhi’s national campaign during his Bharat Jodo Yatra too. Since the caste survey was raised primarily by Tejashwi and then supported by others, the political dividend from it was expected to be credited into the INDIA account.

Another factor expecting a better turnout for INDIA was mass employment given to 5 lakh school teachers across caste categories in one go, a move that had been pending for long. Tejashwi brought up the issues of unemployment and inflation while campaigning at more than 200 rallies despite his adverse health condition. The RJD, known originally for its Mulsim-Yadav support base and leadership, has been including Rajput, Koeri, Dhanuk and Dalits as well. This election, it initiated the process to become an ‘A to Z party’ by including Bhumihars. Tickets were given to the upper castes, extremely backward classes and Dalits, too. It also accommodated Vikassheel Insaan Party leader Mukesh Sahani.

As things turned out, the NDA won 30 seats, with the BJP and JDU getting 12 each, the Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) bagging five, and the Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) one. INDIA won nine seats, out of which the RJD bagged four, the Congress three, the Communist Party of India (Marxist- Leninist) Liberation two, and one to an independent candidate. In 2019, the RJD could not get even a single seat despite contesting 19 and having 15.68 percent of the votes; this time, its vote share increased significantly to 22.14 percent, but it did not translate proportionally into seats in an election of smaller margins. 

The margins of some winning NDA candidates shrank this time. Giriraj Singh had won in 2019 by a margin of 4.22 lakh votes, but this time bettered his closest opponent with only 81,480 votes. Radha Mohan Singh got elected by a margin of 88,287 votes this year, against 2.93 lakh in 2019. Rajiv Ranjan ‘Lalan’ Singh won the previous election by a margin of 1.67 lakh, but this time could win by 80,870 only, about half the earlier margin.  Rajiv Pratap Rudy won this time by a narrow margin of 13,661 votes, whereas he had won five years ago by 1.39 lakh votes.

In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party did extremely well and INDIA reached a tally of 43 while cornering substantial chunks of Muslim, Yadav and Dalit votes, as Mayawati lost her grip over her vote bank because of being away from the power for long.

But there is no one quite like Nitish Kumar to divide secular votes across social categories. So, though it was easier to polarise anti-incumbent voters in favour of INDIA in UP, this was not the case in Bihar. The Bihar chief minister has a secular image and access to the women vote bank, because of his policies of reservation in panchayati raj institutions, liquor prohibition, women-centric welfare schemes including the distribution of cycles, dresses, scholarships and even sanitary napkins. He also enjoys a relatively clean image in development and justice.

His masterstrokes in social engineering strategy to divide the other backward classes further into extremely backward classes, and Dalits into Mahadalits provide him with dependable vote banks despite coming from a smaller caste base of Kurmis, who account for merely 2.89 percent of the state’s population. The BJP could not access these vote banks. Therefore, Nitish Kumar was important for the BJP to weaken INDIA’s vote base.

It was Nitish who initiated the process of uniting opposition leaders much in advance of the Lok Sabha elections. Tejashwi accompanied him to meetings with opposition leaders, be it Mamata Banerjee, K Chandrasekhar Rao, M K Stalin, N Chandrababu Naidu or Arvind Kejriwal. INDIA meetings were held in Patna, Mumbai and Delhi. However, the Congress did not spend the expected attention to ensure speedy decisions by the alliance.

The Congress remained busy with the late-2023 assembly elections and Rahul Gandhi’s yatras, which paid political dividends to the Congress. But it was the end of the show for Nitish when Mallikarjun Kharge was made chairman of INDIA and Nitish was offered the convener’s post, which he declined. Had INDIA taken Nitish into confidence, the situation would have been completely different. The Congress doubted his credential because of his shifting positions time and again. And Nitish proved it right by shifting to the NDA.

When Nitish was active in trying to unite possible INDIA partners, the BJP went aggressive to the extent that Amit Shah announced that the BJP’s door would be closed to Nitish forever. But the BJP soon realised it would ruin its chances in Bihar without Nitish, partly because of bickering in the BJP’s state unit. It was waiting for Nitish to leave INDIA, which the Congress kind of facilitated with a show of political arrogance.

This was the second time. The first was during 2015-17, when Nitish was being talked about as a prime ministerial probable, but the Congress high command did not feel necessary to engage with him when he was trying hard to seek appointment with the Congress president. Post results, INDIA offered the deputy PM’s post too, but by then it was too late. Had the Congress shown a little pragmatism and farsightedness early on, the BJP would not have been back in power.

The people have voted the BJP out from Ayodhya with a clear message that India is a secular country. They have voted for democratic values, plurality, social justice and autonomy of constitutional institutions. Now it is a litmus test for the NDA allies to respect the people’s mandate. People have also voted for a strong opposition. Thus, the task ahead is to have checks and balances in favour of a democracy for the people.

(Views are personal)

(dmdiwakar@gmail.com)

D M Diwakar | Honorary Director and Professor at Development Research Institute, Jalsain; former Director, A N Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna

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