Bihar Polls: The Past Continues To Haunt The RJD While Nitish Kumar Battles Anti-Incumbency
Nitish Kumar's last term, accepted to be underwhelming, is hurting the image he built in the first two.
But he's reminding people of RJD's three terms, generally accepted as the 'dark age' of Bihar.
The past, both distant and recent, haunts the two primary contenders for power in Bihar.
The infamous ‘jungle raj’ during the rule of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) founder Lalu Prasad Yadav and his involvement in the notorious (for which he is serving a jail sentence) is like an albatross around the neck of his heir Tejashwi Prasad Yadav.
But that does ensure a smooth sailing for Janata Dal (United) president and incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar who is seeking a fourth term in power.
Kumar’s primary poll plank has been the record of his 15 years as chief minister compared to the RJD’s inglorious 15 years, a sushasan (good governance) versus dushasan (misgovernance).
The incumbent chief minister, in all his election rallies, has been highlighting the dark days of the RJD rule in Bihar from 1990 to 2005.
Recollections of those 15 years--Lalu Yadav was CM from 1990 to 1997 and his wife Rabri Devi from 1997 to 2005--still sends a shiver down Biharis’ collective spine.
That one and half decade was marked by kidnappings, murders, rapes, rise of private armies, hooliganism, misgovernance, rampant corruption, misuse of the official machinery and subversion of the state administration by the RJD, and development projects grinding to a halt.
Bihar’s crime rate spiralled and the state slid alarmingly down all development indices. Along with the economy, agriculture, education, healthcare and infrastructure suffered terribly.
The 2005 elections marked a turning point for Bihar. Nitish Kumar cracked down on criminals, the mafia and private armies, and ushered in governance.
Kumar focused on infrastructure development: a number of new roads, highways and bridges were built and the ones that were allowed to become decrepit during RJD’s dark reign were repaired.
An aggressive electrification drive was launched, teachers were recruited to schools and colleges, doctors and paramedics sent to primary and tertiary healthcare centres and many hospitals, including super-speciality ones, were set up.
Bihar made a turnaround under Nitish Kumar and the first ten years of his reign, from 2005 to 2014, is considered to be a ‘golden period’ in Bihar’s recent history.
However, things started going awry for Kumar from 2014 when he left the NDA over the projection of Narendra Modi as the alliance’s Prime Ministerial candidate.
The results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections came as a shock for the JD(U), which won just two seats as against the twenty it had won in 2009.
Nitish Kumar aligned with the RJD and Congress to form the Mahagathbandhan, which swept the 2015 polls by winning 178 seats. The NDA--comprising the BJP, LJP, Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) and Hindustan Awam Morcha (HAM)--fared poorly and could bag only 58 seats.
Though Nitish Kumar became the chief minister, the RJD--the biggest constituent of the Mahagathbandhan with 80 seats (JD-U won 71) under its belt--started breathing down his neck.
Matters came to a head when the CBI named Lalu’s son Tejashwi Yadav, who was the deputy chief minister under Nitish Kumar, in a corruption case in July 2017. Nitish Kumar asked for Tejashwi’s resignation, but the latter refused to oblige.
Nitish Kumar then broke away from the Mahagathbandhan, rejoined the NDA, and continued to be the chief minister.
Nitish Kumar’s triple political flip flops in three years dented his image. Also, in the first two years of his last tenure--2015 to 2017--he could not perform due to frequent run-ins with the RJD.
“The RJD started asserting itself and criminals started resurfacing again under RJD’s patronage. Nitish Kumar didn’t do anything and that really dented his image,” said Shailesh Tiwari, a former teacher of economics at Patna University.
Nitish Kumar’s return to the NDA further affected his image and earned him the ire of a large section of the OBCs who considered his abandonment of the RJD (that they are loyal to) as treachery.
Nitish Kumar also seems to have lost steam since 2017. The tempo of development and the sushasan that Bihar witnessed from 2005 to 2014 slackened appreciably, and the pace of development slowed down.
“Judging by the first two terms, Nitish Kumar’s third term has been a severe disappointment. The popular perception is that he has become old and tired and has lost the zeal to transform Bihar,” said Tiwari.
Nitish Kumar’s handling of the lakhs of workers who returned to Bihar during the pandemic-induced lockdown, and the tepid response of the state administration in providing succour to them, has triggered anger.
Akhilesh Narayan Singh, a lawyer at Patna High Court, reasons that Nitish Kumar set the governance bar very high in his first two terms. “When he failed to perform up to people’s expectations in his third term, people were severely disappointed and became disaffected,” said Singh.
Ramendra Yadav, a surgeon at the Indira Gandhi Institute Of Medical Sciences at Patna, says: “Nitish Kumar raised people’s expectations with his good work and governance in the first two terms. It is natural for disappointment to set in when he could not live up to those expectations in his last term”.
Political scientist Satish Kumar says that public disappointment can turn into anger, and an urge to punish, very fast. “Public mood is very fickle and it is quite normal for people to want to punish rulers who disappoint in the present, irrespective of their past performance,” he said.
It is in order to douse this anger that Nitish Kumar is harking on the 15 years of RJD misrule and Tejashwi Yadav’s administrative inexperience.
“Nitish Kumar is effectively warning the people that in their desire to punish him, they will be taking Bihar back to the dark days of RJD rule,” said Satish Kumar.
Problem is, Bihar’s youngsters have little recollection of those dark days and see in Tejaswi Yadav a young leader who they can identify with.
Tejaswi's lack of administrative experience does not matter much to them and they are willing to give the Yadav scion a chance. Nitish Kumar’s contention is that such a step would prove costly for Bihar.
Also, public memory is short and even amongst the 35-plus who grew up during and suffered RJD misrule, the dark days are a distant memory that’s best forgotten. What matters to them is the immediate past, and Nitish Kumar disappoints in that case.
That Bihar’s electorate may have forgiven the RJD for all its alleged crimes, excesses and failings was evident when it (the RJD) emerged as the largest party in the 2015 Assembly elections with 80 seats and a vote share of 18.4 percent.
The JD(U)’s vote share in 2015, despite all the good work done by Nitish Kumar, was 16.8 percent. And the BJP, though it won fewer seats (53), had the largest vote share among all parties (24.4 percent).
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