If you passed by Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg in New Delhi last Wednesday evening, you would think India had discovered Covid-19 cure or the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, deployed in eastern Ladakh, had surrendered. Such were the frenzied celebrations at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters.
As it was, the party was celebrating its victory in the Bihar assembly election. The entire BJP top brass, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, among others, was there. BJP president J.P. Nadda came standing in an open jeep, waving at the crowds. He was finally out of Amit Shah’s shadow. He reversed the party’s losing streak in assembly elections under his predecessor. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh credited Shah’s successor for bringing “new energy” in the organisation.
The scale of celebrations of an assembly election victory, with an ally — Janata Dal (United) president Nitish Kumar — occupying the chief minister’s chair, however, left many wondering. Was it because it came as a public vindication of the Centre’s Covid-19 management and thumbs-up to its handling of the economy and national security? Probably not, because these were not the issues in this Bihar election. If economic distress was an issue at all, questions were targeted at Nitish Kumar. So, was it the celebration of PM Modi’s continuing popularity? But that was never in doubt, not even in states where the BJP lost elections.
The ostensible reason for the frenzy at the BJP headquarters was the party’s performance — 74 seats, with 19.46 per cent of the votes. But, in 2010, the last time the BJP and Kumar’s JD(U) had contested together in an assembly election, the BJP had won 91 seats, with 16.49 per cent votes. So, the number of seats in the new assembly doesn’t really explain the ecstatic response at the BJP headquarters. In fact, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) tripped the BJP to emerge as the single largest party in the assembly (with 75 seats). The three percentage point increase in the vote share between 2010 and 2020 could also not be the reason for it.
In the 2015 assembly election, the BJP had secured 24.4 per cent votes, the largest vote share among all parties.
So, what could explain Wednesday’s jubilations? Of course, the victory in Bihar came after the Delhi poll drubbing and provided the much-needed morale booster and the momentum for the BJP ahead of crucial assembly elections in West Bengal and Assam four-five months later. The real reason that BJP leaders were all excited but wouldn’t talk about it was the fact that they finally got the better of Nitish Kumar and are now in the driving seat in Bihar. The BJP can look forward to establishing its supremacy in Bihar, with or without the JD(U).
Nitish Kumar, a tough nut to crack
On Thursday, a day after the celebrations in the BJP camp, Nitish Kumar came out to interact with reporters in Patna and clarified that his remarks about 2020 having been his last election was misinterpreted. Addressing a rally in Purnea on the last day of the Bihar election campaign, Kumar had said, “This is my last election. Ant bhala to sab bhala (all is well that ends well).” On Thursday, he claimed he makes this comment in his last campaign speech in every election. A week before that, an official press release had left nothing to misinterpret, saying how the CM had announced ‘sanyas’ (retirement).
The BJP is set to have more ministers in Kumar’s new Council of Ministers and is also likely to demand more say in governance. But one needs to watch out if the BJP insists on having the assembly speaker’s post. That would give the first indication of how the BJP plans to move ahead in Bihar. With Nitish Kumar at 69, many JD(U) legislators may not mind shifting their allegiance to a more promising and resourceful party and the speaker would play a crucial role in such cases.
Another indicator would be whether BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi retains the deputy CM’s post. Kumar and Modi go back a long way — right to their participation in students’ movement in the 1970s — and are known as Ram-Laxman of the NDA government in Bihar, despite their different political and ideological affiliations. BJP high command’s Deputy CM choice would indicate whether the saffron party intends to tighten the noose around the CM’s neck right from Day one or bide its time. Indications are that the BJP intends to keep Kumar under leash right from Day One.
Nitish Kumar is a tough nut to crack though. As long as he is in power, he may not mind an ambitious BJP doing a few tricks here and there. But even BJP leaders must know it is Kumar who is keeping all the cards in his hand. If the push comes to a shove, a redo of 2015 is always an option. The RJD may be guarded against Kumar, but the Congress and its allies are capable of inflicting self-injuries just to hurt the BJP.
BJP leaders know it and Nitish Kumar must love this situation — the bread that’s buttered on both sides. Kumar, a Socialist who swears by Lohia, is known to have strong ideological convictions, except in matters of power. If there is any threat to his chair, Kumar can always remember and invoke his ideological moorings to seek and justify support from other quarters. The BJP may, therefore, not be in a hurry to make its next big move in Bihar — not until the next Uttar Pradesh assembly election, at least.
Biharis the only loser in impending power tussle
All major politicians in Bihar could claim victory in this election — RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav for establishing himself as a doughty politician who is here to stay; Lok Janshakti Party (LJP)’s Chirag Paswan for damaging Nitish Kumar; the CM for getting another term in office; and BJP leaders for undermining Kumar and still sharing power with him. Small players such as Jitan Ram Majhi (Hindustani Awam Morcha) and Mukesh Sahani (Vikassheel Insaan Party) have become kingmakers, winning four seats each. Either of them pulling out could reduce the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government to a minority. The coming months and years are, therefore, likely to witness unending power-tussle, ego battles, and brinkmanship in Bihar. These factors will likely keep Nitish Kumar busy. Given that he didn’t show much urgency in matters of governance in his current term in office, few expect him to do any better in what could be his last term in which survival will be his key agenda.
A senior state government functionary who finds Kumar “the sharpest among the available lot” vented out his frustration and helplessness to me: “We are back to the same rut. Distributing freebies, decentralising corruption and no plan or vision for any productive investment for long-term sustainable development…. Buildings banaate rahiye… thekedar khush, party khush, engineer khush. Usme padhai nahi hogi but that is immaterial. Medical college me doctor nahi honge…. doesn’t matter… ITI, polytechnic mein instructor nahi hai… par building to har jagah ban gayi na. Yahi is state ki niyati hai….Hamari niyati khet mazdoor, building site worker, taxi driver, security guard, liftman paida karna hai (there are buildings without doctors, engineers, instructors. The intent of this state is to produce manual labourers).”
Well, he may sound too pessimistic but he is probably going by Nitish Kumar’s track record in the past seven-eight years. Here are a few pointers to his achievements as reported by my colleague Remya Nair:
Data from the National Sample Survey showed that Bihar’s unemployment rate rose in 2018-19 to 10.2 per cent, as against 7.2 per cent the previous year.
Bihar had one of the highest unemployment rates in the age-group of 15-29 years — 30.9 per cent in 2018-19, as against 22.8 per cent the year ago.
Care Ratings estimated that the per capita GSDP of Bihar was at Rs 46,664 in 2019-20, only 35 per cent of the national average of Rs 1,34,226.
The Care Ratings report also pointed out that Bihar has a low share of India’s factories — only 1.5 per cent as of 2017-18.
If this was the state of economic affairs in Bihar when Nitish Kumar was in full control, it’s too much to expect a turnaround in Bihar’s fortune in the next five years, with a weakened CM who must deal with many frenemies to survive the full term.
Views are personal.