Nitish Kumar is facing anti-incumbency after 15 years in power, but a committed voter base and the lack of a better option make him best-placed to win
Bihar, one of the most keenly watched states in India’s electoral politics, will soon hold the first covid-era elections. Nitish Kumar, a chief minister of 15 years, faces strong anti-incumbency after a tumultuous third term. Many believe his main alliance partner is trying to pull him down. However, because of Bihar’s caste politics and the lack of a better option, Kumar might keep ruling for now, say observers.
The third term of the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), leader has been only a shadow of his first two stints. A nationwide economic slowdown has hit Bihar too. The state still lags on most development indices. Despite many advances, infrastructure continues to be poor. The poshest parts of its capital city, Patna, got flooded last year. Very recently, with its tremendous out-migration, Bihar bore the brunt of the hardships of the lockdown imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Nearly 31% of those in the 15-29 age group were unemployed in Bihar in 2018-19, as compared to 17% nationally, shows government data. More recent job surveys by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), too, show that while India has been in a bad shape, Bihar has been far worse. Neither has the government filled vacant posts, nor has private investment entered Bihar, said Shaibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna. This has kept the trend of migration alive, especially to seek low-value jobs, he said. No wonder, creating jobs is the top election promise during the campaign trail.
The state economy has grown faster than the national average in the last two years, but per capita income relative to that of the country has remained stagnant in the past decade. With 9% of India’s population, Bihar has just about 3% share in India’s economic output, the same level as a decade ago. In terms of industrial output, the share is smaller.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) could have helped tackle joblessness, poverty, and even the recent migrant crisis. However, Bihar has largely failed to make good use of it compared to the rest of India. Just 20,445 families got work for at least 100 days under the scheme in 2019-20, a meagre 0.5% of all households that sought work. The national average was 7%.
“In Nitish Kumar’s first term, development was visible, but that agenda weakened thereafter," said Patna-based academic D.M. Diwakar. “The non-agriculture sector, construction, electricity and roads, has performed well, but despite a double-digit growth rate, Bihar continues to have the poorest people," Diwakar said.
Development indicators show little promise. In 2011, the Annual Status of Education Report found that 50% of class V rural children could read class II-level text in Bihar, marginally more than the national figure. However, in 2018, while the all-India average improved to 50%, Bihar’s dipped to 41%. The state has one of the worst student-teacher and doctor-population ratios in India.
However, on the electoral front, all this may not matter. The main opposition, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), suffers from bad reputation from its long rule that Kumar ended in 2005. Its alliance with the Congress lacks strong leadership and has not expanded beyond its voter base of Muslims and Yadavs, said Abhay Kumar Dubey of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
Kumar fought the last elections in 2015 as part of the RJD alliance, sweeping nearly three-fourths of the 243 seats. However, he left the coalition in 2017 and joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The NDA then won all but one seat in the parliamentary polls of 2019, raising hopes of a repeat performance in the state polls. However, that alliance itself is now presenting Kumar’s second biggest obstacle after anti-incumbency.
The Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), a firm NDA ally until recently, has decided to field candidates against Kumar’s party, though it will not contest against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This will not affect NDA’s chances directly, but many believe it could have consequences for JD(U)’s role in the alliance in Bihar. Opinion is divided on whether this is on BJP’s behest—a ploy to sideline JD(U) gradually, especially as BJP’s role in the Bihar NDA has risen in the last few years.
For years, the national party had played second fiddle, but this could change if LJP’s rebellion indeed has tacit BJP support, as some analysts such as Dubey suggest. In JD(U)-LJP contests, LJP wins could reduce the JD(U) seat share and propel BJP to the top. BJP and JD(U) initially decided to contest an equal number of seats, but as conspiracy theories grew, BJP gave up some seats to a smaller ally to pacify Kumar.
There is an opposite view, too. “Contrary to popular perception, Nitish Kumar still has the veto power in the NDA and he is not that simple a person," said Sajjan Kumar, a political analyst. BJP and JD(U) might still end up getting a similar number of seats, he said.
Nitish Kumar has enjoyed popularity for years. BJP knows he is the best option for the chief minister’s chair. This was reflected in popular opinion in the state even over three years into his third term. In 2019, while respondents to a CSDS survey favoured RJD as the ruling party, they wanted Kumar as the chief minister. This time as well, he appears to have the TINA, “there is no alternative", factor in his favour.
However, the final vote will most likely come down to caste, which has played the most definitive role in Bihar elections since the 1990s. In 2015, when the JD(U) fought alongside the RJD, their alliance was able to consolidate much of other backward class (OBC) votes.
Over the past couple of decades, the BJP has consolidated the upper-caste vote base, while the JD(U) has consolidated its hold among non-Yadav OBCs. The RJD-Congress alliance has retained its hold over Yadavs and Muslims. This time, by allying with the Left, the coalition is also expecting support from the communist voter base, Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed said.
Each party’s support across key caste groups is unlikely to change much this year though coalition partners have changed somewhat. Nitish Kumar is the default choice for all communities that believe they are not dominant enough, said Sajjan Kumar. They may criticize him but will still end up voting for him, he said. The chief minister also has the support of women because of the prohibition policy he implemented to counter domestic violence, said Diwakar.
A Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey has projected a 38% vote share for NDA, and 32% for the RJD-Congress-Left alliance.
The voter turnout is a worry, given the pandemic threat. Young people may vote in large numbers against the government, but the overall turnout could be lower than Bihar’s historically low voting levels, said Diwakar.
In each election season over the past decade, Bihar’s political parties have conjured new alliance configurations. This time, the spotlight is on the NDA camp after the LJP exit. The reason is not because it could hurt the alliance, but because it has the potential to decide Kumar’s long-term future. As for the elections, the caste arithmetic is once again likely to have the final say.