Bihar Politics: How Chirag Paswan Sank Nitish Kumar In 2020 And What That Means Today

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Aug 18, 2022 05:26 PM +05:30 IST
Bihar Politics: How Chirag Paswan Sank Nitish Kumar In 2020 And What That Means TodayHow Chirag Paswan sank Nitish Kumar in 2020 Bihar Elections and what that means today
  • When Chirag Paswan of the LJP chose to withdraw from the NDA and put up LJP candidates against the JD(U) alone in 2020, in a house of 243, JD(U)’s seat count fell from 71 in 2015 to 43.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s recent decision to end his association with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition, and to once more ally his party, the Janata Dal (United) (JDU), with Tejashwi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), was surprising only in its timing; it wasn’t unexpected.

Moralists may frown at the flagrantly cavalier manner in which Nitish Kumar betrayed the popular mandate he and BJP received in 2020.

Idealists may fall into a deep swoon over his barefaced re-embrace of the very same Yadav family he had broken with, in 2017 (again betraying the popular mandate of 2015), over corruption charges against Tejashwi.

Pop psychologists may attribute his unprincipled brazenness to a clash between his indigestible envy of Narendra Modi’s ascendancy since 2013, and his own political ambitions. And culture vultures may quote a memorable line from Ocean’s Eleven: “Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs”.

But really, there are no fools in Indian politics. Everything happens for a calculated reason. And the spark of Nitish Kumar’s slow-burning fuse was lit in the 2020 assembly elections, when coalition-constituent, Chirag Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), chose to withdraw from the NDA and put up LJP candidates against the JDU alone.

(The LJP was founded by Chirag’s father, Ram Vilas Paswan. He was a socialist who galvanised the Dalits of Bihar to register record victory margins in Lok Sabha elections for four decades. Paswan Sr., unfortunately, succumbed to the Wuhan virus just before the 2020 assembly elections in Bihar.)

The impact of that on the JDU was dreadful. In a house of 243, the JDU’s seat count fell from 71 in 2015 to 43; their vote share in contested seats fell by eight per cent; they fell to third spot on the seat tally, behind both the RJD and the BJP; and Nitish Kumar had to suffer the ignominy of becoming Chief Minister, as the sorry rump of an alliance now twice his size.

Here are the results of the 2020 assembly elections:

Bihar Politics: How Chirag Paswan Sank Nitish Kumar In 2020 And What That Means Today
Bihar Politics: How Chirag Paswan Sank Nitish Kumar In 2020 And What That Means Today

The LJP’s departure from the NDA, and its selective targeting of the JDU, didn’t just trip Nitish Kumar, but the coalition too.

The NDA crossed the halfway mark only thanks to its two smaller partners – that too, by just three seats. It was just as close on vote shares, with the NDA pipping the MGB by just 0.1 per cent (37.3 to 37.2 per cent).

In addition, the JDU’s win ratio plummeted by half, from 70 per cent in 2015, to a third. And rather ominously, the results showed that the JDU’s core vote base wasn’t much more than 10 per cent, if one discounted the BJP’s contribution.

As a historical table of win ratios shows (number of seats won by seats contested), this was the JDU’s worst performance since the party was formed in 2003.

Bihar Politics: How Chirag Paswan Sank Nitish Kumar In 2020 And What That Means Today

The point is that the Paswan episode of 2020 showed just how diminished a political force Nitish Kumar has become. As explained in a recent Swarajya article, Nitish Kumar’s political career is slowly drawing to a close, and the JDU will not endure in its current form beyond one more election cycle.

There are many ways of demonstrating this truth by using electoral data of the 2020 assembly elections.

One: in 25 seats which the JDU lost to the RJD, the LJP’s vote share was greater than the JDU’s loss margin (meaning that the JDU would have won those seats if the NDA had been intact).

But what’s worrying for the secular cause is that of these 25 seats, the JDU lost pretty badly in over a dozen. Here is the loss margin map for these 25 seats:

Bihar Politics: How Chirag Paswan Sank Nitish Kumar In 2020 And What That Means Today

Two: Humiliatingly for Nitish Kumar, even the Congress, which ceased to be a force in Bihar some decades ago, benefited from the LJP’s exposure of the JDU’s inherent frailties.

They defeated the JDU in six seats which a united NDA would have otherwise won easily.

Bihar Politics: How Chirag Paswan Sank Nitish Kumar In 2020 And What That Means Today

This means that the JDU could have won over 70 seats if the NDA hadn’t frayed, and, that the RJD would have won less than 50 seats.

This was actually what opinion polls predicted before Chirag Paswan pulled out of the NDA: around 150 seats for the NDA with 45 per cent vote share, 90 seats for the MGB with around 35 per cent vote share, and two seats to ‘Others’ with 18 per cent vote share.

The implications are fairly severe for Nitish Kumar and his new friends: the MGB will not get much more than a fraction of the Dalit vote in the next elections.

Now, Kumar may blame the BJP for instigating Chirag Paswan into putting up LJP candidates against the JDU, but that is nothing more than a lame, convenient casus belli invoked 19 months after the event.

As BJP leader Sushil Modi bluntly asked in an interview, if that were true, why did Nitish Kumar stay with the NDA in the run-up to the 2020 elections, and why did he wait till now to make such accusations?

So, instead of trying to make sense of Kumar’s explanations, better to study the LJP’s vote share map. Readers may bear in mind that the LJP contested only half the seats, and only against the JDU in the main.

Note how the party enjoys significant support in dozens of assembly constituencies:

Bihar Politics: How Chirag Paswan Sank Nitish Kumar In 2020 And What That Means Today

And below is a map of the state’s Dalit population by district. It shows that barring the Muslim dominated region of Seemanchal in the east, distribution is fairly uniform, with high concentration in the Magadh region of Gaya-Nalanda.

Bihar Politics: How Chirag Paswan Sank Nitish Kumar In 2020 And What That Means Today

What are the implications?

One, we don’t yet know whether Chirag Paswan will be able to galvanise the Dalit vote as Ram Vilas did, but we do know that the bulk of these votes will not go to the MGB, as long as the LJP doesn’t join the MGB.

Perhaps, Nitish Kumar knows this too, which is probably why he has stuffed his new cabinet with Muslim and Yadav allies.

Two, the optics of the Paswan episode works terribly for Nitish Kumar: If a fringe party like the LJP can damage the JDU so badly, imagine how dependent Kumar is on the RJD, and what little he actually brings to the electoral table.

Three, by corollary, those six losses by JDU candidates to the Congress magnify Kumar’s inherent limitations in leading the charge against the BJP – especially in the forthcoming general elections of 2024, when the BJP will enjoy an extra fillip.

People will ask a simple question: if he can’t defeat the Congress, how will he defeat the BJP?

Four, the Bihar of 2022 is not the Bihar of 2015. New caste-faith lines have been drawn by the MGB, perhaps for the last time in Bihar, with the coalition depending on a substantial Kurmi-Yadav-Muslim bloc for their political fortunes.

That may look good on paper, but it does not resolve a deeper issue – that even at full strength, the MGB will be hard-pressed to get much more than 40 per cent of the vote, precisely because of the social engineering employed in its structuring.

Five, the more that members of the JDU study the situation, the more they will be inclined to quit and join the NDA. This will happen as the next elections grow closer.

Thus, the manner in which the LJP scuppered Kumar in 2020 exposed the limits of his electoral credibility, and his draw over the state. In time, it will also expose the limits of his hold over the JDU, and his inability to thwart a counter-consolidation set to surge in Bihar.

Still, it is too late for Kumar to keep complaining, because he brought this decline upon himself. This is what identity politics does to politicians: it works so well that they don’t know what to do when it doesn’t.

(All data from Election Commission of India and 2011 Census websites)

Also Read: What The JDU-RJD Alliance Means For Politics In Bihar

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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