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Why Nitish May Play It Safe In 2020 Polls

Bihar has come out of the state of hopelessness, and the appetite for development and expectations from the government has increased manifold


Recently, a big hoarding was prominently displayed outside the Janata Dal (United) office in Patna saying, ‘Kyun Karen Vichar, Thike to Hain Nitish Kumar?’ It was not in accordance with the JD(U)’s stand till recently when it glorified its leader, Nitish Kumar, and presented him as a leader larger than life. So, what has changed in Bihar which has forced Nitish Kumar and his party, the JD(U), to adopt a defensive strategy more than a year before the upcoming assembly elections?

To understand why it has adopted a defensive strategy now, we need to first understand the factors and the scenarios that had helped Nitish Kumar take centre-stage in Bihar politics and over time become the unquestionable power centre in the state. And then look at the sequence of events in the last few years which has reduced his confidence so much that he has been forced to take a defensive strategy for the upcoming 2020 assembly election in the state.

It’s a fact that Nitish Kumar has never been a mass leader and, in spite of all efforts, he has never been able to build strong cadre for his party in the state. Yet, he has not only reached the top in state politics but consistently maintained his position at the top for one-and-a-half-decades now. If he doesn’t have mass following then how he could manage to defeat a true mass leader, Lalu Prasad, and how could he manage to keep the BJP, a strong cadre-based party on his side and on his conditions. Further, how he has managed to consistently get support of the electorate in Bihar.

To understand all this we need to understand the political and social history of Bihar and the sequence of events in state politics over the last three decades. After independence, for the first five decades, the politics and society of Bihar were completely dominated by the upper castes. In 1991, Lalu Prasad broke this dominance and established himself as a leader of the poor, backward classes and minorities. He was largely popular in his first term, but in the second term his government for the first two years and then the Rabri Devi government for the rest of the term were marred by large-scale corruption charges, serious law and order problems and favoritism.

Society and the state government were dominated by the Yadavs, and the larger non-Yadav backward castes started feeling upset and uneasy. They didn’t want the Lalu Prasad regime to continue, but they were equally reluctant to support the BJP, which was regarded as an upper caste party. The Congress party had become irrelevant.

The BJP, which had after the downfall of the Congress party emerged strongly in the politics of the state, was struck at some point – it had brought the majority of the upper castes over to its side but it was not able to connect with the politically significant backward castes and the Muslims were against it anyway. So, it had clear realisation that it won’t be able to challenge Lalu Prasad of its own in the foreseen future. Hence, when a few MPs of the erstwhile Janata Dal (RJD) broke away to form the Samata Party under the leadership of George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar, the BJP offered unconditional support to it.

Then, after the 2000 assembly elections, when the NDA got an opportunity to form the government, the BJP offered the chief minister’s post to Nitish Kumar even though his Samata party had only 34 MLAs, much less than the BJP’s 67. It was a strategic move by the BJP, and it worked for it as well as Nitish Kumar. The non-Yadav backward and scheduled castes accepted Nitish Kumar (an OBC)-led NDA as an option. He was acceptable to the upper castes as well as he was in alliance with the BJP and his image was of an honest and moderate leader. For many of the Muslims, who were as uneasy as many others in the Lalu-Rabri regime, found a credible option in Nitish Kumar due to his secular and honest credentials. With all such changes in the political-social dynamics of Bihar, the NDA won the 2005 assembly election with a thundering majority under Nitish Kumar’s leadership. Then onwards politics of Bihar has been revolving around Nitish Kumar.

So, the two factors that worked for Nitish Kumar were the overall condition of hopelessness in Bihar during the last few years of the Lalu-Rabri regime and Nitish Kumar’s acceptability by the widely divided society of Bihar. Over time, both the factors have diminished to a large extent more so in last five years – and this has brought down the stature of Nitish Kumar considerably in the politics of Bihar. The last three major elections held in Bihar – the 2014 general election, 2015 assembly election and the 2019 general election – has special significance in this regard, the three elections combined together have brought major change in the political dynamics of Bihar, which was actually so favourable for Nitish Kumar till before the 2014 general election.

Today’s Bihar is not as widely divided on caste lines as it was a decade back, and over time the two major parties which were distant poles in the caste-ridden politics of Bihar – the BJP and the RJD – have been able to gain acceptability from a wider section of social and political groups. Therefore, Nitish Kumar no more carries the advantage of being the only acceptable political option for different social and political groups in the state.

Bihar has come out of the state of hopelessness, and the appetite for development and expectations from the government has increased manifold and Nitish Kumar hasn’t been able to cope up with this expectation for quite some time now. Everyone agrees that Nitish Kumar has brought Bihar to a decent state from a condition which looked completely hopeless to many. But people feel that they have rewarded him enough for all this, and now expectations are clearly much more than what is getting delivered on the ground. There is also a feeling that Nitish Kumar is taking the electorate for granted, assuming that the people of Bihar have no option and this is based on facts.

In spite of tall claims of development by the Nitish Kumar government, many are forced to leave Bihar and go to other states in search of jobs. Those doing so include the educated, skilled and non-skilled. This has been so for decades and there has been no considerable improvement during Nitish Kumar’s regime. A similar situation prevails in the education sector. In last one decade, the number of institutes offering professional courses has increased, but still every year a large number of students go to other states for education.

To conclude, the two factors that helped Nitish Kumar emerge and dominate Bihar politics are no longer relevant – Bihar has moved much ahead from the state of hopelessness it once wallowed in and there is now high expectation from the government. With the changing political social dynamics, Nitish Kumar has lost the edge of being the only acceptable political option for different sections of the society in the state. He has clear realisation of both these facts, and so in such a scenario – for the upcoming 2020 assembly election, the JD(U) seems to be going safe, and instead of making its last five-year work a poll issue, it is asking the electorate to trust the time-tested Nitish Kumar over others. (IANS)

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