Janata Dal (United) leader and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is facing his toughest battle yet in Bihar. The JD(U) has launched the campaign ‘Nitish sabke hain’ (Nitish is everyone’s) at a time when its alliance partner Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) is putting up candidates against it, ostensibly with the backing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Sushasan Babu, as Kumar is called by his supporters, has emerged as the undisputed leader of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar and is credited with taking Bihar to the path of development after the “jungle raj” of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Lalu Prasad.
Kumar is a good example of personification in Indian politics: Nitish Kumar is the JD(U) and the JD(U) is Nitish Kumar.
Over the years, Kumar has crushed all competition within the party. He propped Sharad Yadav against George Fernandes and then dumped Sharad Yadav when he tried to emerge as a parallel power centre. Upendra Kushwaha left the JD(U) in 2012 due to Kumar’s dictatorial attitude; he went on to form the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP).
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He appointed poll strategist Prashant Kishor as party’s vice president after he crafted a strategy to defeat the Narendra Modi-led BJP. Kishor was touted as Kumar’s successor, but the two fell out due to differences over the Citizenship Amendment Act and other matters.
While Kumar is seeking a fourth term, question marks remain over the future of the JD(U). Who after Nitish Kumar? The party is primarily built up of members of the erstwhile Janata Dal in Bihar. With the weakening of the RJD many of its leaders have joined the JD(U). A joke in Bihar is that the membership of both parties is complimentary.
A prime example is Shivanand Tiwari who has been close aide of Lalu Prasad as well as Nitish Kumar. He was in the RJD from 1997 to 2008; then switched to the JD(U) in 2008 and was there till 2014 when he went back to the RJD.
There is no leader who commands similar clout as Kumar in JD(U). His close confidante RCP Singh, Lallan Singh and Bashistha Narain Singh lack charisma and state wide appeal.
The JD(U) faces the risk of disintegration once Kumar steps down/retires, and many leaders would either move to the RJD or join the BJP. Unless Kumar appoints a second-in-command and oversees a transition in this tenure, assuming the NDA wins. Kumar’s son Nishant Kumar has shown disinclination towards politics.
Over the past few elections the JD(U) has held hands with both sides, the NDA as well as the Congress-led Maha Gathbandhan. This flip-flop has branded Nitish Kumar an opportunist.
The popular political catchphrase in Bihar is ‘Aisa koi saga nahi jise Nitish ney thaga nahi’ (There is nobody who has not been cheated by Nitish).
In the 2005 and 2010 assembly polls the JD(U) contested with the BJP. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls it contested on a standalone basis. In the 2015 assembly polls it had alliance with the RJD, and in the 2019 general elections it was part of the BJP-led NDA.
Bihar’s caste equations and societal conditions give Nitish Kumar the political manoeuvrability to switch sides successfully. By caste Nitish Kumar is a Kurmi. He has built a dedicated vote base of most backward castes and mahadalits, kurmis, koeris and a section of minorities. His standalone vote share is about 16 percent. He has exhibited the ability to transfer this vote seamlessly without much leakage irrespective of whether he is an ally of the NDA or Maha Gathbandhan.
This strategy has provided him the flexibility to align with whoever he wishes to remain in chair. His core base has remained intact as he has devised specific schemes for mahadalits and MBCs. Nitish Kumar’s earlier posturing of keeping a distance from Modi also helped him to win some minority support.
The JD(U) gets a leg up whenever it ties up with the BJP, from upper caste and OBCs. It loses this vote while contesting alone. When contesting with the RJD, while it maintains its vote share, the composition of its support changes, as it gets more Muslim and Yadav votes.
The above table shows that the BJP is the JD(U)’s natural ally, and that it is able to expand its reach while partnering with it. With the RJD, the impact is neutral as the JD(U) loses some OBC and SC support, while gaining Muslim-Yadav support. However, Nitish Kumar has not been able to hold on to these vote blocks once the JD(U) severs ties with these parties.
Despite his good work in the first two terms, Nitish Kumar hasn’t been able to expand his anchor voting segments. It is this fact which makes him dependent upon allies, either the BJP or the RJD to remain in power.
However, this helps Nitish Kumar keep in check an overzealous BJP. If it arm twists him too much, the JD(U) can jump ship.Amitabh Tiwari is a former corporate and investment banker-turned political strategist and commentator. Twitter: @politicalbaaba. Views are personal.