BJP will try to expand in Bihar without alienating Nitish Kumar
Nitish Kumar on Monday assumed the office of the Chief Minister of Bihar. This was the seventh time he was sworn in as Chief Minister in the past two decades. Unlike in the previous NDA ministries, this time there will be two deputy chief ministers, both from the larger alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party. Eleven others were also sworn in as ministers. Nitish was elected the leader of the National Democratic Alliance, though his party the Janata Dal (United) had won lesser number of seats in the Assembly elections. The BJP kept the promise it had made to the people of Bihar that Nitish would lead the alliance even if his party won a lesser number of seats. While the BJP ceded the top post despite its superior numerical strength, it made sure that two of its MLAs were made deputy chief ministers. The idea of the BJP behind getting two deputy chief ministers appointed is to see that the party’s presence in the government looks in public perception concomitant with its numerical strength in the Assembly. An unstated reason of course is to see that the party pursues its agenda more forcefully during this term. Till the last election, Sushil Kumar Modi was the deputy chief minister. He was publicly perceived to be close to Nitish Kumar. By naming two new faces as deputy chief ministers the BJP intends to build a public perception that it is now going to carve out an image independent of the shadow of Nitish Kumar and the JD(U).
Though Nitish was reluctant to take over as CM, the top leadership of the BJP did not want to take risk and get trapped in a Maharashtra type of scene where it failed to form government with its longtime ally, the Shiv Sena, despite emerging as the single largest party. The dispute over sharing power in Maharashtra led to the alliance being broken and the Sena forming a new alliance with arch rivals the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress. Now that Nitish has returned to the helm of affairs in Bihar, he has his task cut out. His administration came under severe criticism for “poor handling” or rather absence of any approach in dealing with the coronavirus, floods and the homecoming of more than twenty lakh migrants from different cities of India. There were media reports and government feedback about corruption and mismanagement in some of the government schemes. The administration was not as tight and proper during the initial months of the coronavirus spread. The absence of government was felt in several respects, and that was what accumulated as dissatisfaction with the Nitish government, giving room to the opposition parties.
It was ironic that the man who had transformed a decadent Bihar, the man who had brought electricity and running water to every home in the state, the man who had built roads to make travel faster throughout the state would be facing the accusations of bad governance. Political pundits called it anti-incumbency, but perhaps owing to the lapses of the administration during the coronavirus it turned out to be much more. For, though it was highly unethical of the BJP to use the Lok Janshakti Party leader Chirag Paswan to undermine Nitish Kumar with the intention of reducing the tally of the JD(U) and emerging as the larger partner in the NDA, it also cannot be denied that Paswan was able to get enough votes to engineer the defeat of JD(U) candidates because his anti-Nitish narrative found buyers among voters. Of course Paswan, by offering himself for the BJP barbeque, has inflicted greater political injury on himself than on Nitish Kumar. He will find it very hard to erase the image of a ‘vote thief’ in public perception. When he fights elections next time, he would be judged for his negative politics, rather than positive politics. The intra-NDA relationships would be interesting to watch in respect of Bihar in the coming months. Much will depend on how prudently the BJP pursues its twin objectives of expanding its support base to get a majority on its own in 2025 and of not alienating Nitish Kumar in the process.