Nitish is back as maximiser, but his elbow room is limited

Kumar is now on the same turf in the national politics that has made him thrive in Bihar.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi.

About five months after Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar made his last big switch in Patna in the winter, he has now found himself in the national spotlight in Delhi at the peak of summer. 

As his party’s resilient show in the Lok Sabha polls restored his political respectability, Kumar has clawed back to a position from which he can craft his moves on his terms. The chatter about the twilight of his career can wait as the essential survivor of Patliputra has struck a new note of relevance in Delhi. As an ace maximiser of the available political space, he is now on the same turf in the national politics that has made him thrive in Bihar – the politics of the missing piece between two rival alliances.  

There are many ways in which the Nitish Kumar-led Janta Dal United has defied the recent attempts to write it off, and its latest electoral redemption hasn’t surprised long time observers in Patna. The reasons aren’t far to seek. 

Despite incurring the risks of alliance-switching and acts of political promiscuity, the fact remains that Kumar has been able to retain the support of a decisive section of his voter base. His sway over these voting groups, though a bit depleted in the last few years or so, has been significant enough to ensure that his party tilts the balance in favour of either the BJP-led NDA alliance or of the RJD-led bloc. This is what places him in a position to leverage the politics of missing the piece. 

In the latest Lok Sabha polls, his party secured 18.6 percent of votes and clinched 12 seats. The subtext is that a crucial part of the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes, Extremely Backward Classes, and Mahadalit social coalition, along with segments of Pasmanda Muslims, hasn’t deserted him, although the count has depleted a bit. 

To add to that, his party could still rely on a small segment of across-caste vote share for his governance credentials, though it is perceived to have taken a beating in his third term. Meanwhile, his continued success in particularly carving a support base among the Economically Backward Class, which constitutes around 36 percent of the state’s population, has stood him in good stead in the recent polls. With that, however, one shouldn’t lose sight of the contribution of alliance politics to his tally.

It’s significant that, going against the widely held perceptions of a weak JDU, the NDA again allocated 16 seats to the JDU in the state, the same number on which the party fought in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. That was a combination of Kumar’s keen awareness of the elbow room in sight as well as the BJP’s estimate of the value he brought to the alliance. 

At the same time, the JDU’s support base was significantly swelled by its coupling with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and the reach of the central government’s welfare schemes and cash transfer programmes. Along with consolidating the BJP’s share of the EBC and OBC votes and upper caste votes, the alliance also helped JDU get the transferred Dalit votes from other NDA allies such as the Lok Janshakti Party-RV and Hindustan Awami Morcha-S. 

This implies, as the party leadership has been pointing out in post-poll statements, that Kumar’s January switch to the NDA, the latest among a series of alliance-hopping he has done in the last few years, has got popular approval. 

Perhaps the better way of putting it would be to say that Kumar has emerged unscathed from the most recent of a series of his alliance-switching somersaults. In some ways, his two-and-a-half- decade-long association with the NDA, which started in the late 90s, has also meant that he could develop a frame of working relations and keeps coming back to its fold. That’s despite his differences with PM Modi’s approach, something which Kumar  had made clear by parting ways with the bloc in 2013, when the BJP made Narendra Modi its PM candidate. He came back in 2017 to again quit in 2022, before returning to the NDA early this year.

It’s easy to dismiss his alliance-switching traits as opportunistic. But the space available for his manoeuvrability has largely been a function of inconclusive political equations and their unsettled social bases in the state. We will come to look at how it’s a by-product of the nature of electoral politics in the state over the last three decades – different to such an extent that it makes Bihar an outlier to the trends in political contests in most parts of the country. 

It’s in this context that Kumar has always directed his craft and sense of timing to find a convergence of brinkmanship, political space, and expedient trade-offs. In the wider sense of the term, Nitish has been a maximalist – aware of how he and his party can leverage the role of being the missing piece in the inadequate claims by two key rivals to the seat of power. 

In understanding such responses, there is a subtext of how Bihar is an outlier to the largely bipolar contests now seen in other Hindi heartland states, and for that matter, most of other states in India.  

In the 21st century, no single party in Bihar has had the numbers to form a state government on its own. Even the last Rabri Devi-led RJD government in 2000 was formed with the Congress’s support. In the five assembly polls that followed, it was either an NDA combine (2005, 2010, 2020) or the Mahagathbandhan (2015) that secured power, punctuated with Kumar’s 2017 switch from the grand alliance to the NDA. 

Even the convincing wins of the NDA in 2005 and 2010 and that of the Mahagathbandhan in 2015 were coalition victories – none of the bigger parties had the confidence to do it solo or the numbers to do so after the election outcomes. 

Amid the political reasoning for his shifts in alliance-making, the Lohiaite ideological moorings of Kumar and his formative years of the JP Movement in the mid-1970s are occasionally evoked. The personal attributes, however, that still resonate with a section of the electorate are his probity in public life, a clean image that hasn’t been dented by more than five decades in politics. To add to that, unlike many heads of regional parties, he has kept away from turning his party into a family fiefdom, and shunned dynastic politics.

To come back to the immediate, Kumar’s JDU has pledged full support to its pre-poll alliance, the NDA, and the leadership of the new government under Modi. That leads to the obvious question – when will Kumar start weighing in on the alternative of joining the rival INDIA bloc, an alliance that he helped form last June before snapping ties? The difficulty in answering this question intensifies even when one considers a key non-political factor – Kumar’s fading health. He hasn’t been keeping well for quite a while, and that’s ostensibly not an insignificant factor that could influence his responses to the situation. 

The fact that he has bounced back to the national vortex gives his political journey a new lease of life. But Kumar has a keen eye for the political flux, and when time comes, he has the stature to be decisive. 

With the current alternative alliances at the centre, his elbow room is restricted by the fact that it’s only in tandem with other allies that he would be in position to either rock the NDA’s boat or help INDIA bloc form its government. It isn’t improbable that other NDA allies such as the TDP of Andhra Pradesh or the LJP- RV in Bihar will act in concert, especially the latter with its far more assured ties with the NDA. 

At the same, even in the case of desertion, Kumar will be alert to the fact that the rival bloc would still be short of the majority mark. That presents a scenario where he is more likely to look at maximising the return game. 

Kumar is more likely to draw on his coalition-hardened years as central minister in the NDA governments of the past. That gives him perch to pitch in his long standing demands of a special package for Bihar, caste census or even the JDU’s plans for a relook at Agniveer scheme. That would run parallel to the party’s expected bargain for important ministerial berths in the central government. 

Back in his role as maximiser, Kumar has a sense of the use of political space. More significantly, he is likely to seek assurances for a smooth working of the alliance in Bihar, which would mean no immediate tinkering with his hold over chief ministerial office in the state, in the run-up to the assembly polls in the autumn of 2025. The latest statements of the top BJP leaders in Bihar show that they are ready to enter the next state polls fray with Nitish Kumar leading the NDA campaign.

As Kumar holds his ground in Bihar to find the national centerstage in Delhi, his keen eye for playing the maximalist will be watched as much as his astute measure of the political space and time. As a  practitioner of the politics of flux, ranging from a studied Lohiaite outlook to the Machiavellian playbook, his party is all set for yet another delicate walk through the power corridors of national politics.

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