Why Bihar By-Poll Results Pose A Setback To Nitish Kumar’s Vaunted ‘National’ Ambitions
Nitish Kumar’s national ambitions hinge on the presumption that his popularity in Bihar remains intact, which, in fact, is facing severe erosion.
The carefully-crafted image of 'sushasan babu' (a good administrator) has also started waning.
The results of the by-polls to the two assembly constituencies of Gopalganj and Mokama in Bihar have adversely impacted Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s lofty ambitions of pitting himself against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Nitish Kumar dreams of reviving the old ‘Janata Dal’ parivaar and bringing together the most non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and non-Congress opposition parties under one umbrella before the 2024 elections (read ).
His aim is to emerge as the prime ministerial candidate of this rainbow coalition.
According to the terms of his re-entry into the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led Mahagathbandhan in August this year, Kumar will have to relinquish his Chief Minister’s post and hand over the reins to his deputy Tejaswi Yadav by next year-end.
RJD supremo Lalu Yadav had also laid down the condition (for allowing Kumar’s re-entry into the Mahagathbandhan) that Kumar has to merge his Janata Dal (United) or (JDU) with the RJD.
That merger, as per the assumption of both Yadav and Kumar, will germinate the reunion of all parties that were part of the Janata Dal and Janata Party parivaar (read about it and ).
But the by-election results have thrown a huge spanner in Kumar’s works and majorly upset his plans.
The results have demonstrated that Kumar’s image and appeal have eroded substantially. Anti-incumbency against him is mounting and his core support base — of non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Economically Backward Classes (EBCs) — is turning away from him.
Kumar has lost the support of the upper castes after he unilaterally severed ties with the BJP in August this year and returned to the Mahagathbandhan that he had unceremoniously walked out of in 2017.
Kumar’s frequent U-turns, which has earned him the sobriquet of Paltu Ram, and his political chicanery has severely dented his image, especially among the urban electorate.
The Chief Minister’s carefully-crafted image of sushasan babu (a good administrator) has also started waning and anti-incumbency is mounting against him.
Despite having ruled the state for almost 16 years now, Bihar under Kumar continues to lag behind all other states in most development indices. Unemployment is high and Kumar has singularly failed to attract any investments.
Bihar’s infrastructure is in a mess once again, and the state’s revenue generation is extremely poor. The law and order situation has witnessed a marked deterioration over the past two months since the RJD became part of the government.
All this has severely affected Kumar’s popularity and threatens to wash away his legacy.
As a result, realisation is slowly dawning on the Bihar Chief Minister that he cannot pitchfork himself onto the national political stage while his support base at home (in Bihar) faces severe erosion.
Kumar’s national ambitions hinge on the presumption that his popularity in Bihar remains intact. Only a strong support base in Bihar can provide the necessary springboard for Kumar to launch himself into the national political arena.
Kumar will, perforce, have to concentrate on arresting the erosion of his support base and image in Bihar.
“The by-poll results show that Nitish Kumar cannot take his eyes off Bihar. If he tries to shift focus to national politics, it will only hasten the washing away of his, and the JD(U)’s, base,” said BJP state chief Sanjay Jaiswal.
Also, Kumar is the most popular and credible face of the Mahagathbandhan. RJD supremo Lalu Yadav, convicted of massive corruption, is a tainted figure and his son Tejaswi is still untested.
On its own, the RJD can count only on the support of the Yadavs and a section of Muslims, and that is not enough for the party to win elections.
Kumar lends respectability, even though that is declining, to the Mahagathbandhan and the RJD. The by-poll results have driven home the point that without Kumar, the Mahagathbandhan’s political future in Bihar looks grim.
JD(U) leaders say that Kumar’s dissociation from the poll campaigns in Gopalganj and Mokama adversely affected the RJD candidates’ prospects.
His absence from the campaign left JD(U) supporters confused and prevented the transfer of their votes to the RJD candidates in the two constituencies.
JD(U) leaders also admit that the by-poll results have rung alarm bells within the party.
“Whatever we may say in public, the fact is that the results have served a reality check on us. We are very disturbed and strongly feel that Nitish Kumar needs to devote himself wholeheartedly to Bihar. Shifting focus away from Bihar will be disastrous for us,” said a senior JD(U) leader who is also a minister.
There are also simmering tensions between some leaders and many cadres of the JD(U) and RJD. That’s because the RJD has started asserting itself and, being the big brother of the Mahagathbandhan, wants to dictate terms.
An important section of JD(U) leaders feel that the RJD has resumed its patronage of criminals and musclemen and that’s why lawlessness and the crime rate is rising in Bihar.
These leaders have started pushing back against Kumar’s plans of merging the party with the RJD and shifting to the national stage. They have indirectly warned Kumar that if that happens, they will be forced to jump ship and join the BJP.
“We cannot work, or survive, under the RJD. The RJD epitomises the opposite of everything that we hold dear — like good and clean governance, the rule of the law and an impartial and responsive administration. We cannot surrender our ethos and abandon our principles and conscience just for political convenience. Nitish Kumar has to be present in Bihar wholetime to ensure that the RJD does not cross the boundaries,” said the JD(U) minister.
Another senior JD(U) functionary who did not want to be named told Swarajya that the by-poll results have only held up in unequivocal terms what they had been warning Kumar against.
“We have been telling the Chief Minister that our support base is eroding and our re-association with the RJD has not helped. He needs to focus solely on Bihar to preserve his legacy,” said the JD(U) office-bearer.
Thus, if Nitish Kumar continues to work towards his goal of getting onto the national political arena, it will be to his own peril in Bihar.
But if he abandons that goal, he will be violating his agreement with the RJD and angering his ally.
The Bihar Chief Minister is, thus, faced with an acute dilemma.
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