Patna: The man who started off with a voter base constituting 2 per cent of Bihar’s population — members of his caste, the Kurmis, primarily concentrated in and around Nalanda district — in 1994, when he separated from Lalu Prasad and formed his own party, is all set to be sworn in as Bihar Chief Minister for the seventh time.
If Nitish Kumar completes this term, he will become the longest-serving Chief Minister of Bihar, breaking the record set by the 18-year tenure of the state’s first CM, S.K. Sinha.
To his supporters, the NDA’s lead in the Bihar assembly elections after a neck-and-neck contest with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led mahagathbandhan, is a testament to Nitish’s hard work, a fitting beginning to what will be his last phase in active politics — the CM had announced during the campaign that this will be his last election.
“If the NDA won despite a 15-year incumbency, despite the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) managing to defeat us in 23 seats — it speaks volumes of the support base Nitish has retained. The extremely backward classes (EBCs) and women have again stood behind him,” said JD(U) working president Ashok Choudhary.
Like many of his contemporaries, Nitish is a product of the J.P. Movement (1974-77) that began as a student protest in Bihar but later expanded nationwide as a campaign against the Emergency imposed by former PM Indira Gandhi. An engineer by qualification, Nitish won his first election in 1985.
Over the years, he has come to be known as ‘Sushasan Kumar’ for his governance acumen, but Nitish has never won an election without allies, be it the BJP now or the RJD and the Congress for a brief affair between 2015 and 2017.
In Lalu’s shadow
Nitish was born in Bihar’s Bakhtiarpur district on 1 March 1951. He got his BSc in Engineering from Bihar College of Engineering, Patna. He got married in February 1973, months before he joined the J.P. Movement and was detained under the erstwhile Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). He has one son from his marriage with Manju Sinha, a teacher who died after prolonged illness in 2007, two years after he became Chief Minister the second time.
He first entered the legislative assembly of united Bihar — 15 years before it was split to carve out Jharkhand — in 1985. Over the following years, he also dabbled in national politics as a member of the Lok Sabha and Union minister.
Until their split in the 1990s, Nitish was seen as content being in Lalu’s shadow, never seeking the limelight for himself. Known to be an intensely private person, he is someone who is described as immune to the trappings of power.
When Nitish Kumar was Union Railway Minister (between 1998 and 1999), Patna railway officials were shocked one day to find his wife standing in a queue to buy train tickets. A railway officer, it is said, immediately took money from her to buy her the tickets.
His brother-in-law, the late Prabhat Kumar, was a junior railway official who was seen catching a tempo home. “But that is Nitish Kumar. He never mixes family with politics, unlike Lalu,” said a JD(U) leader.
A disastrous start
Nitish’s maiden political foray following his split with Lalu was a disaster as his party — Samta Party, which he co-founded with the late George Fernandes in 1994 — won just seven of the 324 seats in the assembly of pre-bifurcation Bihar.
“There were talks about Lalu forgiving Nitish Kumar and going to his residence, asking him to rejoin his party. But Lalu never went and that is when Nitish Kumar started dabbling in caste and alliance,” said an old Nitish Kumar follower. Nitish and his mentor Fernandes forged an alliance with the BJP and, in 1998 and 1999, the party won six and 12 seats, respectively, in the Lok Sabha.
(Nitish held Fernandes in high regard. Last year, after the former Defence Minister’s death, Nitish lost his restraint and broke down as he remembered their days together.)
His image as a leader with a strong drive for development took shape during his stint as Union Railway Minister, as he pushed many central projects to Bihar due to his proximity with the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpaiyee.
However, despite starting 11 new trains and seven mega projects in the state, and carving an image as a “Vikas Purush (development man)”, he lost his constituency Barh in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. It was then that he realised that development was not enough.
“The defeat in Barh was a personal tragedy. I do not believe that development means nothing to voters, but now I will defeat Lalu in his own game,” he had told this correspondent at the time.
After the February 2005 elections yielded a hung assembly, Nitish began focusing on EBCs — a group of 156 smaller castes that constitute 29 per cent of the votes and the “Luv-Kush relationship” between the Kurmis and the Kushwahas, who constitute 8 per cent of the voters (Luv and Kush were the sons of Hindu deities Ram and Sita, and, according to the Ramayan, the Kurmis are the descendants of Luv, and the Kushwahas of Kush).
Since the BJP was known to court support among the upper castes, the alliance had itself a strong support base.
Ahead of the November 2005 election, the late Arun Jaitley of the BJP suggested that Nitish be made the CM face. It paid off as a large chunk of non-Yadav OBCs swung the NDA way and won the coalition a washout victory.
During his first term, Nitish mixed building of roads, hospitals and schools with caste politics — bringing in reservation for the EBCs in panchayat and municipal bodies and creating a Mahadalit vote bank (the term initially excluded the Paswan community but was eventually expanded to include all the state’s 22 Dalit communities).
Apart from this, he started the distribution of free cycles and scholarships for girls pursuing higher education. He also introduced a 50 per cent quota for women in municipal and panchayat bodies, and introduced women-led self-help groups under the Jeevika initiative to help beneficiaries with interest-free loans.
The brief split with BJP
In 2013, Nitish split from the BJP, reportedly over apprehensions about Narendra Modi’s nomination as the NDA prime ministerial candidate, but the decision proved costly. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the JD(U) got barely 15 per cent of the votes. He subsequently formed an alliance — the mahagathbandhan — with Lalu and the Congress in 2015, and the coalition won the assembly election that year. The alliance ended in 2017, when Nitish returned to the BJP.
Through it all, his steps for the welfare of EBCs and women have endeared him to the groups. Despite his numbers going down drastically — as of late Tuesday night, the JD(U) looked set to win 43 seats, against the BJP’s 74 — the BJP will find it very difficult to ignore him, at least till he is interested in Bihar politics. The question is, how will he administer the state with a wafer-thin margin, with the BJP emerging as the big brother in the NDA.