In July 2017, Nitish Kumar dumped his pre-poll ally Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and joined hands with Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party. In a press conference at the time, Nitish Kumar declared that nobody would be able to defeat Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
This was soon after the BJP had won the Uttar Pradesh assembly election with a thumping majority despite the failure of demonetisation. While a lacklustre national opposition was floundering, Nitish Kumar seems to have calculated that the Modi era was here to stay. In aligning with the BJP, he was buying insurance for himself.
Together with the BJP, Nitish’s Janata Dal (United) had won 206 of 243 seats in Bihar in 2010. The alliance was considered unbeatable. Nitish as a good governance face, BJP as the cadre-based party that makes noise on the ground. Nitish as the lower Other Backward Classes (OBC) messiah marginalising the Yadavs, the BJP adding the upper caste vote bank to it. Lalu Yadav was reduced to nothing but his Muslim-Yadav votebank.
We saw a repeat of this in the 2019 Lok Sabha election when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 39 of 40 seats in Bihar. Today, if you travel to the state, you won’t believe it. People want Nitish Kumar to go, and they’re not chanting ‘Modi! Modi!’ either.
When you ask people about Modi, they praise him. It is Nitish who hasn’t been doing well. From toilets and gas cylinders to Ram Mandir and Kashmir, Modi is fine. There was a time when the Indian voter knew inflation was to be blamed on the central government and law and order on the state government. Today, in Bihar, you won’t find people angry with Nitish Kumar complaining about price rise. “Have you ever eaten potatoes this expensive in your life before?” a shopkeeper in Champaran’s Betiah asks me. He’s Sah by caste, traditionally a BJP-voting community. He plans to vote for the Congress in Betiah, where it is a BJP versus Congress contest. But Modi is fine…
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Chief ministers pay for Modi’s failures
The greatest point of anger this election in Bihar is the lockdown. In 2019, too, unemployment was quite high. But the lockdown-induced unemployment is of another order altogether. Also in Betiah, a Sah home manager charges at you, asking how she would survive on just Rs 500 a month, even with the free ration. She wants Nitish Kumar to go. Modi? Modi is fine.
It was the Modi government that sent a paltry Rs 500 to the bank accounts of the poor during the lockdown. It was the Modi government that imposed the lockdown and it is the Modi government’s economic policies that have sent the Indian economy into a tailspin since 2016. Yet, it is Nitish Kumar who is facing all the flak. Modi is fine. The same people who say the lockdown was a good idea because it saved lives from Covid-19 criticise the state government for its failure to take care of people’s suffering during the lockdown.
You can blame Nitish Kumar for being utterly insensitive in telling Bihari migrant labourers that they couldn’t return to their own homes, but wasn’t it Narendra Modi who shut down all public transport? Yet, Modi gets no flak. Even the Tejashwi Yadav-led opposition alliance has been targeting Nitish Kumar and not Narendra Modi, afraid that a negative campaign against a popular Modi could backfire.
We have seen this pattern for a while, and in every state. All the good that happens is due to Modi, and everything that goes wrong is the fault of state governments. Even BJP-led state governments. News channels that act more like a mouthpiece of the Modi government went after Nitish Kumar for the Muzaffarpur shelter home sexual abuse case, but they will never question Modi on unemployment.
It was Narendra Modi’s policy of keeping inflation under control by not raising the minimum support price (MSP) for farm produce. This led to farm distress, resulting in the BJP’s loss in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh assembly elections, both of which the Congress won by promising farm loan waivers. Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan out of office, Modi appeased farmers with a cash dole of Rs 6,000 a year.
In Rajasthan, we heard the slogan in BJP rallies: “Modi tujhse bair nahi, Vasundhara teri khair nahi.” In UP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, I met BJP workers who said they were going door to door to tell people not to take out their anger against Yogi Adityanath’s government on Modi. Issues such as perceived preferential treatment given to Thakurs, they said, should be settled in the Vidhan Sabha elections.
The BJP machinery, from WhatsApp to news channels to party cadres, works very hard to distance and protect Narendra Modi’s image from anything that goes wrong in the country. For this, they are happy to throw even BJP chief ministers under the bus, or those of NDA such as Nitish Kumar.
Also read: ‘Nitish hatao’ chorus grows louder in Bihar
The latest entry
Nitish Kumar is a cautionary tale for all chief ministers and regional leaders: if you subsume yourself in the Delhi Durbar, it will use you as the fall guy. We have seen this happen to Mehbooba Mufti, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Badals in Punjab and we are now seeing it happen to Nitish Kumar. Next in line is Dushyant Chautala of Haryana.
It is a bit like how Google often acquires rising startups and then shuts them down. This helps maintain Google’s near monopoly over the internet.
If Nitish Kumar had not surrendered before Modi, he could have been blaming all the people’s suffering on Modi right now, showing himself up to be the champion of the Bihari people fighting an insensitive Delhi. That’s what he did in the 2015 Bihar assembly election. He would have asked Modi to give an explanation for lockdown and unemployment, for causing GST troubles to state governments and not fulfilling the special status demand for Bihar. Along with Lalu Yadav’s vote bank, he could easily have sold this story to his voters. Instead of looking like an insensitive tyrant, he could have played the fighting underdog that Tejashwi Yadav is doing right now. Instead, he is forced to acknowledge Modi’s leadership, seek votes in Modi’s name, and promise Biharis that it is PM Modi, not CM Nitish, who would develop Bihar.
Even if Bihar gets an NDA government after 10 November, it is certain that Nitish Kumar is going to be the biggest loser of this election. It is bound to reflect on his seats too. When it does, he should look back at July 2017 and realise it was political suicide.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.