He’s now Bihar’s longest serving CM, but can Nitish handle future political challenges?

The JDU chief is losing his support base, but he knows how to leverage his role as the missing piece for other parties.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
Nitish Kumar

Even as he enters a delicately poised phase for his future and legacy in politics, JDU leader Nitish Kumar this week became Bihar’s longest serving chief minister when he completed 17 years and 53 days in office. The duration of his tenure now exceeds the record previously held by Shri Krishna Sinha, the first CM of the state in the post-Independence phase. 

Except for a brief period of nine months, during which Nitish had handed over the chief ministership to Jitan Ram Manjhi, this could have been an unbroken stint. That record still remains with Bihar’s first CM. 

This statistical milestone was only a matter of time after Nitish returned to power for a third term in 2020. But it wasn’t achieved without yet another change in alliance partners, with Nitish parting ways with the NDA in August 2022 for the third time to join the RJD, Congress and other Mahagathbandhan allies.

A little more than a year later, he’s now in the cramped space of a sidelined INDIA alliance partner in national opposition politics – a poll coalition of which he was one of the early initiators. At the same time, Nitish’s continued stint as CM has meant that he is managing a tricky alliance with parties that have been his rivals for the most part of his 50-year-old political innings in the state.

Many may see Nitish’s current political challenges as meeting their match in the quintessential Nitish – someone with a reputation for an acute sense of pragmatic expediency. This reputation in state politics has only been reinforced over the last decade or so, starting with his departing the NDA in 2013 and stitching an alliance with the RJD in 2017, only to return to the NDA fold in 2017. He then walked away again to ally with the RJD in 2022.

As poll strategist Prashant Kishor, once Nitish’s close aide and the former vice-president of the JDU, once said, “When he opens a door, he also keeps a window open and lets his new ally see the window.” By keeping a window open, Kishor said, Nitish not only keeps options ready for himself if things don’t go his way in an alliance, but also indicates to others that he’s open to explore alternatives.

What this means is that decoding the Bihar CM over political alignments has constantly engaged the media, political commentators and allies too. It has often led to reading too much between the lines, or misreading even routine media bytes, speeches and statements.

Early this week, for instance, Nitish spoke at a convocation ceremony at the Mahatma Gandhi Central University in Motihari in the presence of President Droupadi Murmu. He talked about having lifelong friendly relations with BJP leaders. This triggered a lot of speculation. Adding to it all was that Nitish recalled that the previous Congress-led UPA government had not approved of his demand for a central university in Bihar. However, the new government in 2014 had, and the central university was set up.

As much as this statement kept his current allies guessing, while perhaps making them jittery, it provided enough fodder for media speculation. JDU leaders had to rush to explain away Nitish’s statement as non-political. Even RJD leaders had to clear the air about the context of the statement being limited to personal bonds with leaders. But it was ultimately left to Nitish to finally issue a denial – which he did in the presence of RJD chief and deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav – of any intention to return to the NDA. He also expressed dismay at misinterpretations of what he’d said.

Meanwhile, pitching a principled stand amidst the controversy, the BJP reiterated that all doors for Nitish’s reentry are shut. During his visit to Bihar in April, Home Minister Amit Shah had made a similar statement about the BJP having no place for the return of Nitish to the NDA.

This was likely to be a case of misreading a routine utterance at a public event. But it’s strange that talk about Nitish signalling warmth towards his former allies comes just four months after the Bihar CM was seen as a prime mover of the INDIA alliance. Even if such conjecture is brushed aside, there is a strong view that he had been eyeing the convenor’s role in the alliance for an active positioning in it. Such expectations, if any, have obviously not been met and the Bihar CM’s initial drive for the newly-formed national coalition seems to have slowed down, showing far less involvement. The cohesiveness of the alliance in the state, however, will be tested when seat-sharing among parties is discussed for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. 

Meanwhile, from Nitish’s perspective, the conduct of the caste survey in Bihar could be leveraged for different objectives. The primary one is obvious: pitching himself in the national Lohiaite stream of social justice politics and eyeing a nationwide OBC constituency. Back home in Bihar, the enumeration of EBCs at 36 percent against OBCs at 63 percent can perhaps be useful in retrieving his party’s depleting voter base. In the last two decades, in the process of building an alternate social coalition to challenge the RJD-led MY equation, he had nurtured EBCs as one of his key segments.

However, the possible electoral rewards from the caste survey are offset by the fact that, in the last 33 years, OBC-dominant governments led by those with avowed Lohiaite leanings have been in power in the state. So, the pitch of a power balance shift isn’t there. Similarly, the limits of state capacity in addressing reconfigurations has also been seen in the last three decades.

As he struggles with the shrinking support base of the JDU and the stagnant stage of his initial appeal of governance, Nitish now relies on deftly using the available political space. To that effect, he has been a maximalist, aware of how he and his party can leverage the role of being the missing piece in the adequate claims of two key rivals to the seat of power.

As this writer wrote last year, “Nitish has always directed his craft and sense of timing to find the mean between brinkmanship, political capital, and expedient tradeoffs. It’s easy to dismiss his alliance-switching traits as opportunistic. But he takes his chances, and the space available for his manoeuvrability has largely been a function of inconclusive political equations and their unsettled social bases in the state.”

So, his next few months in state and politics may call into play many elements that have shaped his continuity in power corridors as well as his use of any inch of political space. Even in face of daunting challenges, it’s difficult to see how the time-hardened political enterprise of  Bihar’s longest serving chief minister will let him slip into any semblance of irrelevance anytime soon.

Also see
article imageHow the caste census will play out in Bihar’s power matrix


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