Bihar 2020: Strong undercurrents against Nitish Kumar, who is fighting a grim political battle
Notwithstanding opinion polls and forecasts, which are giving the NDA a comfortable majority, Nitish Kumar is fighting the most difficult political battle of his career. What are his chances?
Nitish Kumar became a Union Minister in 1989 and played a crucial role in making Lalu Yadav the chief minister of Bihar the next year. Barring brief periods since then, he has always been in power and has been a key political figure in the state. But the impression is that he is fighting this election with his back to the wall, that it is a grim battle for survival. Having been the chief minister for 15 years, a certain degree of anti-incumbency is not surprising. But on the ground there is a rather strong anti-Nitish sentiment that voices a need for change, even if nothing changes.
A rising crime graph has put an end to the chief minister’s zero tolerance to crime, which was so evident in his first term as CM. His handling of corruption cases, from Srijan scam to the Muzaffarpur Shelter Home scandal, dented his image. His Government’s handling of the pandemic, the migrants returning home and the floods seemed inept and insensitive.
Anecdotal evidence is offered to suggest that corruption in government offices has actually gone up since the babus imposed a ‘Sushasan Surcharge’ on the ground that the risk of vigilance raids, imprisonment and loss of their jobs were now greater. In the last five hours, vigilance sleuths appear to have gone on leave. But ironically the Vigilance Department inspectors seem to have proceeded on mass leave in the state during the last five years.
Prohibition earned him considerable goodwill, especially among women, but it is also a fact that a flourishing black market in liquor replaced the legitimate trade, making the state exchequer suffer losses while not making much of a dent into liquor consumption and brewing of illicit liquor.
Nitish Kumar in 2020, people agree, cuts a sorry and a lonely figure. Most people believe BJP is determined to wrest the CM’s chair from him. If this is achieved by Chirag Paswan doing enough damage to weaken the CM and reduce substantially the tally of the JD(U), it would be fine. If not, BJP would not mind a hung House and an opportunity to poach MLAs from other parties and if necessary, by engineering a split in the JD(U) itself.
Chirag Paswan has put up some very formidable candidates -Rameshwar Chaurasia, Rajindra Singh, Usha Vidyarthi and Shobha Devi, to name only a few, and thereby has made things really difficult for Nitish and his friend-turned-foeturned friend again, Jitan Ram Manjhi. In any case, Manjhi is known for his easy political virtue and nomadic instincts and does not quite qualify as a dependable ally
Uncharitable critics say JD(U) is a one-man party. There is no second, third or even fourth line of leadership in sight, they point out. How long can such a party last? With Nitish Kumar not getting any younger, many in the JD(U) are ready to jump ship, especially since JD(U) does not have a strong caste base. Kurmis constitute barely two percent of the state’s population and besides Nitish Kumar, the party can boast of few even Kurmi leaders.
While Nitish Kumar is left with few friends, what is working to his advantage is the divided rivals. He has already propped up Manjhi against Chirag. The battle for Dalit leadership of the state has assumed interesting dimensions.
Despite his marriage of convenience with the BJP, Nitish Kumar is credited with following inclusive policies and dealing with communal violence with a firm hand. He has also addressed the concerns of smaller minorities like the Sikhs and the Buddhists.The interest shown by him in the management of the event of the Sikhs and the amendment of the Buddha shrine act bear testimony to this approach.
Earlier, only a Hindu DM of Gaya could serve as the chairman of the Shrine Management Committee at Bodh Gaya, thereby putting Buddhists at a distinct disadvantage. Nitish Kumar got the Act amended and made the post of chairman religion neutral.
The idea of minority hostels was conceived by the RJD. But Nitish Kumar made the hostels functional. Pension benefitsoffered to minority college staff also went down well with the minorities. Some political observers believe that paradoxically, Nitish Kumar is likely to get a sizeable section of the Muslim votes unlike in 2005 and 2010 assembly elections and 2009 and 2019 Parliamentary elections.
A pragmatic politician, he does not carry any heavy ideological baggage. Travelling light is clearly a distinct advantage in politics. Therefore, post-election, all options will be open to him. He can enter into alliance with any political party, be it RJD, Congress or the Left. He in fact had made his independent political debut in alliance with the CPI -ML in 1995.
Unlike law and order, his performance on the development front is not as poor as his detractors would like people to believe. There is commendable improvement on the power front and rural electrification has changed life for the better in villages. State highways are much improved and, in some cases much wider than before. There may not be much teaching in schools teachers are there.
Functioning of govt hospitals too has improved. Concretised lanes and drains are visible in most villages and despite execution deficits and allegations of corruption, the scheme to provide tap water to each household has also found favour with many people in the rural areas.
Given his mandate and the almost free hand, Nitish Kumar could indeed have done and achieved a lot more. But it would be unfair to accuse him of a dismal development report card.
Quiet and careful with his words, a rare quality in politics these days, Nitish Kumar is certainly fighting a grim political battle, perhaps the most difficult of his political career. But he is not out. Yet.