How Nitish Kumar won Bihar, again

The impressive governance record of his first two terms wasn’t made the yardstick to measure his last five years as the chief minister, and so anti-incumbency was tamed.

ByAnand Vardhan
How Nitish Kumar won Bihar, again
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Nitish Kumar is set to become Bihar’s longest serving chief minister, taking the record from Shri Krishna Sinha, the state’s first chief minister who died nearly six decades ago. By all means, winning a fourth term is a remarkable political feat for Nitish, who defied anti-incumbency to lead his National Democratic Alliance to victory over the opposition Grand Alliance. Though drawing too many inferences from election outcomes is always an exercise limited by a short timeframe, two essential and a few immediate indicators can be identified from the Bihar results.

First, in a broad sense, the dyad of an alternate social coalition and the across-groups constituency of governance nurtured by Nitish’s Janata Dal United, along with its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, over last two decades in Bihar continues to be a potent force against the rival social alliance led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal. Despite some fissures, Nitish’s social alliance – of OBCs, especially Economically Backward Classes, Mahadalits, Pasmanda Muslims – and its rejection of anti-upper caste rhetoric held against the grand alliance’s coalition – Muslims, Yadavs, a few groups within the EBCs, and a few sub-castes within the Dalit community.

More significantly, the force of anti-incumbency was tamed because Nitish’s impressive record of governance in his first two terms wasn’t made the yardstick to measure his last five years in office. Instead, it was measured against anxieties about what the RJD-led alliance could damage. Nitish’s third term was seen as being lacklustre only when measured against his first two terms, but it was still preferable to apprehensions of misgovernance that the grand alliance evoked in civic memory.

Second, Bihar has again shown that it’s a land alive to ideological currents woven around different socioeconomic identities. That so many parties with so many ideological differences won seats shows the exercise of political choice is spread widely over the coordinates of ideological persuasions and socioeconomic interests.

Along with these two broad indicators, the phases of consolidation and counter-consolidation in voting are also remarkable. To begin with, unlike the narrative that the mainstream media was interested in, the problem of unemployment had a level of generality that could either make it an issue in all elections or none.

To reach out to the youth across caste groups, the RJD promised to recruit for 10 lakh government jobs. But it was crafted more as a sarkaari naukari lure rather than a credible plan of employment generation. Moreover, the dismal governance record of the RJD when it was in power meant the party was still seen as a part of the problem of low employment generation rather than a part of the solution. While a section of the youth across caste groups might have been swayed by the lure of government jobs, there was also a perception among a decisive section of Bihar’s voters that the RJD was responsible for Bihar missing the bus of private investment and industrialization post-liberalisation, which had a long-lasting adverse impact on employment generation. This meant that the short-cut measure of promising a million government jobs, though alluring, couldn’t cut ice beyond a point.

In the first phase of voting for 71 seats, the RJD’s Muslim-Yadav consolitaion and the promise of a million state jobs enabled the grand alliance to gain ground in parts of South Bihar. But it was countered effectively in the second and final phases. The invocation of jungle raj (the purported state of lawlessness in the state during the RJD’s rule) helped consolidate votes against the grand alliance.

For a generation of Biharis, the RJD’s rule from 1990 to 2005 is a lived reality, not a political allegation as some commentators in the media have been claiming in the last few weeks. They have been using the same spurious line of argument as the RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav: that development, law and order, and governance were largely upper caste concerns. It’s a misleading argument as misgovernance and lawlessness affected all, something the RJD under Tejashwi Yadav itself tacitly acknowledged by removing Lalu’s face from its campaign posters. Moreover, the RJD’s social empowerment of the backward castes was limited to the dominance of the Yadavs, as non-Yadav OBCs, EBCs, and Mahadalits supporting the JDU-BJP alliance realised.

The consolidation against the grand alliance in the second phase of voting for 94 seats and the third phase for 78 seats makes this evident.

Another significant insight, especially in the context of an election held in a time of economic distress exacerbated by the pandemic, is that voters aren’t absolutists in expectations and can appreciate doses of relief work. While the news stories kept highlighting the plight of migrant workers and the working populace in the state affected by the coronavirus lockdown, it missed stories about the sense of relief that a large section of them expressed after benefiting from free foodgrain distribution and other relief measures. This contributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi retaining support in rural pockets and helped the BJP win approval of a significant section of the rural populace. The pandemic relief programmes run by Nitish’s government also earned votes for the incumbent alliance.

An oft-repeated, and validly so, argument has been that the silent women voters came to the Nitish government’s rescue when anti-incumbency was starting to take a serious toll. Like in the last Assembly election – when women accounted for 60.48 percent of all voters – women outvoted men in 2020. Nearly 59.69 percent of the voters in 2020 were women as against 54.68 percent men. The perception is that Nitish’s government has cultivated gender-sensitive politics as a constituency in itself. The support the chief minister enjoys among women voters goes beyond the sense of security that his regime has brought in public spaces. It has extended to policies designed to achieve women empowerment, including 50 percent reservation for women at the panchayat level, 35 percent quota for them in government jobs, and a free bicycle scheme, Rs 55,000 grant and other benefits until graduation for girl students.

Similarly, though the sale of illicit liquor continues to be a chink in the implementation of prohibition, a large section of rural women appreciate the chief minister’s intention to curb domestic violence and the wastage of family income. Again, unlike the critics, the beneficiaries aren’t absolutists in their evaluation of the policies. They appreciate Nitish for taking a tough decision, warts and all.

In terms of outcome, the presence of vote cutter” parties appears to have made the election a closer contest than it would have been as a straight fight between two rival alliances. As expected, Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party hurt its erstwhile NDA ally, the JDU. Though the LJP won a single seat, it hit JDU in 31 seats, where the votes secured by the LJP were more than the margin of the JDU’s loss. If there is any truth to the claim that the BJP strategically used the LJP to reduce the influence of JDU in the NDA, it was a dangerous ploy, as the results showed. Anxiety was apparent in the second and third phases as the BJP made an extra effort to clear the confusion over the LJP’s presence and more vocally back Nitish as the undisputed leader of future government.

In another realm of party dynamics, the release of captive voters from their conventional citadels is another story of the election. The fact that Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen could win five seats in the Seemanchal region of northwest Bihar is important as it loosens the grip that the RJD, the Congress and, to an extent, the JDU had over Muslim voters. Along with hitting the RJD in Seemanchal, the AIMIM weaned away JDU support in places such as Kochadhaman in Kishanganj. It, however, remains to be seen if the AIMIM can sustain as a serious political presence in the region, which has a large Muslim population.

Having successfully navigated the pitfalls of election, Nitish enters the familiar but challenging turf of governance. While his emphasis on ensuring basic development – roads, electricity, law and order – fulfilled people’s immediate needs, Nitish will now be required to provide for their aspirations. His performance on the former count ensured he retained office, but this close result should alert him to the fact that his new term would be shaped by how he takes the state to the next chapter of the development story. To do so, he will need to clear bottlenecks in implementation and be politically astute enough to build a broader social coalition.

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