The Political Fix: What explains the anger with Nitish Kumar in Bihar, even as Modi remains popular?

Plus, how this fits into the BJP's run of poor state election results.

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The Big Story: Hot Seat

The last few years have been unkind to Indian chief ministers who have spent decades in power.

Pawan Kumar Chamling lost power in Sikkim after more than 24 years in 2019. A year before that Manik Sarkar stepped down from the top post in Tripura after almost 20 years.

December 2018 also saw Bharatiya Janata Party stalwarts Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chauhan, of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, lose elections after three terms at the helm. Chauhan would later find himself back in power in Madhya Pradesh in 2020, after the BJP convinced a number of Congress leaders to jump ship.

Amid all this, Naveen Patnaik still soldiers on, having run Odisha since 2000.

After him, on the list of incumbents in power for the longest time is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Technically there is a hole in Kumar’s calendar. He gave up the chief minister’s post to Janata Dal (United) compatriot Jitan Ram Manjhi in 2014 for less than a year. But most observers would say Kumar has effectively run Bihar since 2005.

How much longer will Nitish Kumar be in power?

Three weeks ago, we pointed to the challenge facing Kumar in the ongoing Bihar elections. The first phase was on October 28, with two more – on November 3 and November 7 – before votes are counted on November 10.

Earlier in the year, the election seemed likely to be both dull and predictable, with most expecting the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party combine to comfortably return to power, with Kumar as chief minister.

Then, as we explained, the BJP itself threw a spanner in the works by appearing to support its smaller partner, the Lok Janshakti Party, which struck out on its own, but promised to only attack Nitish Kumar’s party. This prompted rumours that the BJP would ditch Kumar if it could muster enough seats to do so, followed by course-correction from Home Minister Amit Shah who voiced support for the chief minister and insisted that the ‘insider trading’ chatter was untrue.

Despite the BJP’s denials, the impression was hard to dispell. It certainly has not helped that the BJP’s own campaign across the state primarily leans entirely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personality, leaving Kumar off the billboards, and party leaders continue to sing praises of the LJP’s Chirag Paswan.

Political scientist Rahul Verma, on a Friday Q&A two weeks ago, said that the question of whether the BJP can resolve this confusion for its voters may be the key to the election.

Meanwhile, Tejashwi Yadav – the chief ministerial face for the mahagathbandhan, the grand alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress-Communist Opposition – has been amassing huge numbers at his rallies across the state, with a campaign that is entirely targeted at Nitish Kumar’s tenure rather than Modi’s personality.

Crowds at rallies are no indication of election results, yet it doesn’t hurt Yadav to have visuals of tens of thousands turning up at his events, clearly energised by the grand alliance’s promise of providing a million government jobs at his very first Cabinet meeting if he were to win.

The contrast is even starker because Kumar has cut a rather sorry figure in some of the videos from his campaign, whether being shown his place on the stage with Narendra Modi, a leader he once refused to work with, or being confronted by slogans praising his former rival-turned-ally-turned-rival Lalu Yadav – father of Tejashwi – at his own rallies.

Report after report from Bihar now seems to suggest that this election is at best a referendum on Nitish Kumar’s rule or even one in which his tenure and reputation are the principal issues on the table. The chief minister once known as ‘Sushasan Babu’, the development man, now has to face questions about what he has actually achieved in 15 years, with Bihar continuing to languish on a number of key indicators.

Writes Sankarshan Thakur, biographer of both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav:

“The one clear message ringing out from Bihar is that Nitish’s public image has nosedived — “sushasan babu” has become a thing of ridicule. He has been mocked and taunted during election outings, angrily motioned to go back where he came from, called, among other things, a “chor”.

Nitish is visibly riled; footage from the campaign trail is peppered with a chief minister in episodic outbursts of public anger. He is staring at the price he might have to pay for taking his eye off the governance ball to play survival game…

How did it come to this for Nitish Kumar?

First, it is important to point out that the conventional wisdom – and the opinion polling – still expects the JD(U)-BJP alliance to win the elections, with the presumption that Kumar will remain chief minister.

There may be some talking of a potential hung result, and in a first-past-the-post system with unexpected spoilers and multi-cornered contest, this wouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. But still, the general expectation is that Kumar will be back – but severely dented, with little leverage and vulnerable to further machinations.

Second, there is a belief that the unhappiness with Kumar is not simply a function of his 15 years in power and the desire for change.

As Yamini Aiyar writes, “[Kumar’s] strategy sought to remove politics from governance and free senior bureaucrats from political patronage. But in doing so, it failed to mobilise a political constituency that could challenge patronage networks at the grassroots… His model for good governance was not designed for structural change. This is why his third term has been bereft of new ideas and serious change. The governance miracle stagnated.”

Third, the pushback may be structural too.

Kumar’s support has generally come from the Extremely Backward Castes, the Mahadalits – a term used to refer to the poorest Dalit castes – and women, giving him a strong enough base but never enough votes to win a majority by himself. This is why the JD(U) has had to ally with either the BJP or the RJD to come to power in the past.

Political analyst Sajjan Kumar argues that the current anti-Nitish Kumar narrative has come primarily from dominant castes hoping to win back the power that they lost during his tenure.

“In a nutshell, the dominant groups like Yadavs and a section of upper castes are enthused with the vague possibility of dislodging Nitish Kumar. What sustains Nitish Kumar is the silence of his core support base, the EBCs, Mahadalits and Kurmis and a section of women who aren’t vocal. In the meantime, all we hear is the restlessness of the dominant castes.”

Sobhana K Nair’s report from a region of Bihar suggests that even portions of Kumar’s core base are disenchanted with him, but fear voting for the dominant castes since it would mean a return to even more marginalisation.

Fourth, Bihar may offer the clearest-yet indication of one of the key features of the Narendra Modi era, one that we have returned to over and over: Centralisation, both of governance and of politics.

Most BJP chief ministers over the last few years have been politicians selected by Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to take charge, rather than popular state leaders who powered the election campaigns. Even Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, now one of the most prominent BJP leaders in the country, was not projected as a chief ministerial face before the elections.

Part of this is the result of a very deliberate effort to build up Modi’s image at the cost of everything else within the party, particularly state leaders – as we wrote in the Political Fix last week. This explains to some extent why the BJP has actually done poorly in state elections in recent years, especially when a Modi-era chief minister (Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana, Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra) is up for re-election.

Nitish Kumar doesn’t fit comfortably within this system, since he was well known before the Modi era and, by leading a separate party, maintains some independence relative to other chief ministers who operate within the BJP.

Unfortunately for him, when combined with the massive and extremely well-funded Modi propaganda engine, this has meant that voters seem to be blaming all the state’s woes on Nitish Kumar, while giving whatever credit there is to the prime minister.

Back to Sankarshan Thakur:

“It can be of little comfort to Nitish that many of those chanting “Nitish hatao” [get rid of Nitish] are also chanting “BJP lao” [bring the BJP]; not all the anti-Nitish sentiment translates into anti-NDA sentiment. The BJP, on the contrary, cannot be unhappy to sip the juicy paradox that this is – it has been spared palpable public annoyance, the blame is all for Nitish to hog.”

In other words, Modi-era chief ministers, usually from the BJP, have anyhow done badly as incumbents, and Nitish Kumar – as the most visible of the lot and one who isn’t within the party – is doing even worse.

This brings up two what-ifs scenarios:

  • What if Nitish Kumar had stayed with the grand alliance instead of jumping ship in 2017? Would the anger and unhappiness in Bihar have more easily been thrust upon the state’s treatment by the Centre, as Shivam Vij argues here?

  • What if the BJP had stayed away from Nitish Kumar? Would it today be happily picking up the fruits of 15 years of anti-incumbency, without having to contort itself into somehow defending and also not-defending Kumar?

Results are more than a week away, and the two upcoming phases may to some extent still be governed by the last-minute hawa, the mood on the day. But it is clear that an election campaign that seemed insipid a few months ago, now appears to actually be a contest.

More Bihar election reads:

Flotsam and Jetsam

  • External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that India-China ties are under severe stress, and insisted that any unilateral attempt to change the status quo – as Beijing has attempted to do this year, though not clearly acknowledged by the Indian government – is “unacceptable.

  • Language critical of Chinadisappeared from the US State Department’s readout of opening remarks by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh at the recent 2+2 dialogue between India and the US.

  • Instead of the usual laudatory language, Union Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari said at the inauguration of a building that he was “ashamed” that it took so long to be built and that the officers whose indecision was responsible ought to be be punished.

  • Former Finance Secretary SC Garg wrote a blogpost a year after voluntarily retiring from the Indian Administrative Service, revealing that he quit because Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharamaninsisted on his transfer from the ministry and that he felt “working with her was going to be quite difficult and it might not be conducive to undertaking necessary reforms for the attainment of the objective of building a $10 trillion economy of India.”

  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave an interview to the Economic Times, mostly filled with boilerplate commentary about how he believes things are going well in India.

  • Pakistan minister Fawad Chaudhry appeared to admit that his country had a role in the Pulwama suicide bombing that led to the deaths of 40 Indian security personnel in 2019, and then backtracked saying he was quoted out of context.

  • India criticised “personal attacks in unacceptable language” by Pakistan and Turkey on French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron. Meanwhile, an Indian Muslim organisation condemned the beheading of the schoolteacher in France and called for withdrawing of blasphemy and apostasy laws worldwide, while a collection of more than 100 prominent Indians wrote a letter saying they were “deeply disturbed by the convoluted logic of some self-appointed guardians of Indian Muslims in rationalising cold-blooded murder and deplored the outrageous remarks of some heads of state.”

Can’t make this up

Lots to pick from for the section this week.

There was the Indian astrologer who has predicted that US President Donald Trump will be re-elected.

There was a macaw that didn’t want to pose with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a zoo in Gujarat.

And BJP leader Jyotiraditya Scindia, who jumped over to the party this year after decades in the Congress, seemed to get his campaign slogans mixed up...

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