The era of Nitish Kumar in Bihar politics is approaching its end: Sanjay Kumar

  • The recent assembly election result shows the beginning of BJP’s dominance in Bihar politics
  • The electoral outcome is certainly the consolidation of traditional voter base of RJD which is the Muslims and Yadavs owing to RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav's appeal

Gyan Varma, Anuja
Updated16 Nov 2020
Sanjay Kumar, director at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti.
Sanjay Kumar, director at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti.(Priyanka Parashar/Mint)

NEW DELHI: The recent Bihar assembly election results have positioned the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a key political force in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and in the state, catapulted the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s (RJD) Tejashwi Yadav to the position of a key opposition face and electorally weakened Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United). In an interview with Mint, Sanjay Kumar, professor at the New Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies-Lokniti, explains what the outcome means for key political stakeholders.

Edited excerpts:

This is the BJP’s best ever performance in Bihar. Do you think it is a one time political development or is it the new normal where BJP will help its alliance partners win even state assembly polls?

I don’t think this is a one-time incident, it is the beginning of the BJP’s new innings in Bihar. My sense is that a lot of voters in Bihar have been waiting for the BJP to play a bigger role in Bihar politics. While the core supporters of BJP have been voting for NDA but and some of them did not want to vote for Nitish Kumar even in earlier election but they are voting for Nitish Kumar because BJP had not put up its candidate due to the alliance. I think it is the beginning of the BJP’s dominance in Bihar politics. In the future, I see BJP either goingalone or with smaller regional parties. It will not tie up with the JDU. I think this election will spell the end of the BJP-JDU alliance. This is the alliance's last election in Bihar (according to me).

My sense is that the BJP may be repenting now and may be they think they could have gone alone in this election and not in alliance with Nitish. It seems the BJP reluctantly decided to contest it in alliance with Nitish.

Do you think it is time for BJP to go beyond its religion card particularly in states like where caste-based consolidation continues to play a significant role?

In order for the BJP to be successful or to emerge as a much bigger player in Bihar, I don’t think the religion card is going to help. If BJP plays the religion card, they may be able to expand only in some regions because of the concentration of the Muslim population. The BJP has to change the social profile of its leaders to a great extent. It is changing (now), there are BJP leaders from OBC communities and from, among dalits. Gradually, in the next five years, I see BJP trying to expand among communities that have not been voting for it. Voters would get a sense that the era of Nitish Kumar is coming to an end in Bihar politics and the JD(U) is declining.

Nitish Kumar had said this could be his last election. Do you think the NDA needs to find a new leader in Bihar and help BJP win the state polls again?

I would slightly disagree that NDA needs a new leader, it is the BJP that has to look for a new leader. BJP would try and think of a leader who could lead the NDA now. This is Nitish’s last election, also because the leadership would no longer be in the hands of JD(U) now. It may start from Nitish becoming chief minister but I have serious doubts if Nitish would continue as the chief minister of Bihar for the entire five year term. I have no doubt that there would be a change in the leadership in the middle of five years. NDA leadership would go in the hands of BJP. This NDA would only have a notional value, finally in the next election it would be BJP alone contesting the election. According to me, NDA will not be there to contest elections in 2025 in Bihar.

Is RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav’s electoral and political success an outcome of his personal appeal or is it more about traditional consolidation of caste combinations?

The electoral outcome is certainly the consolidation of traditional voter base of RJD which comprises Muslims and Yadavs, but that consolidation would not have taken place if there was no appeal for Tejashwi Yadav. I think it all happened because of the personal appeal of Tejashwi, he was able to project an image which was over and above the caste loyalty. The way he campaigned leading u to the elections, he led a positive campaign and never engaged in a verbal duel even when he was attacked personally as 'jungle raaj ka yuvraj'. He maintained his cool and kept campaigning on two issues of development and unemployment. It created a positive image for Tejashwi. While his positive image travelled outside his party's traditional Yadav caste base and the Muslim community, it could not travel far enough to make him the next chief minister of Bihar. The Grand Alliance (Mahagathbandhan) fell short of a majority, but the RJD gave a stunning performance and it has the same vote percentage as the NDA.

Do you think the opposition to Nitish Kumar led by Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Chirag Paswan helped the Mahagathbandhan in improving its performance?

I don’t think there is any connection between Paswan’s attack on Nitish Kumar which helped RJD or others mobilizing votes against Nitish. I think it damaged JD(U) in the sense that it resulted in scattering of anti-Nitish vote. I don’t think it helped the RJD in any way because their supporters were never fond of Nitish, so whether or not you criticize him it does not matter. In fact, if it was getting transferred to RJD there would have been bigger damage. If LJP continued being part of NDA, the results would have been very different. Now we can only speculate but it could have been upto 150-160 seats to the NDA because of consolidation of votes.

The performance of smaller parties has helped both the alliances improve its tally. What does the response given to smaller parties indicate about the mood of the people?

It is very difficult to guess the mood of the people by assessing the performance of smaller parties. Two smaller parties of NDA which is the Hindustan Awam Morcha (Secular) and Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP)—have performed well because they were part of the NDA whose votes got transferred to them. The victory is because of BJP, JD(U) support base in those constituencies along with their own individual presence in those constituencies.

Similarly, if we look at the performance of Left which performed very well within the Mahagathbandhan, they performed well because there was vote transfer from RJD and Congress besides them having a solid support base in those constituencies.

I don’t see a separate message from the victories of smaller parties except for All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) which managed to win five seats indicates that even though Muslims have been voting for RJD and Congress in a big way including this election, Muslims don’t seem to be happy with the way they have been treated or the kind of development which may have taken place in that region. The day they get a serious alternative, they would be very quick to shift their votes as they have done in these five constituencies as soon as they saw the option of formidable candidates from AIMIM, they saw that these people are in a position to win the election they shifted their vote. So, the only message I get from performance of smaller parties only with respect to AIMIM is disenchantment among Muslims, desire for looking forward to an alternative beyond the party they have been voting for many years now.

The Congress has not been able to meet the expectations of alliance. Do you think regional parties in alliance with Congress are suffering due to its poor electoral performance?

One has to look state by state. But overall if you see, the sense which we get is that in whichever state Congress forms an alliance with a strong regional party, it has hardly helped that regional party in brightening the prospect of that particular regional party. The Congress has mostly ended up being a liability for regional parties. This was the case in Bihar. There is a lot of talk about strike rate, contesting 70 seats and winning 19 seats. This gives an indication that it may have been a mistake to give Congress a large number of seats to contest.

At a time when the economy is not doing well, the development of Bihar is at centre stage because states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar can either help or pull down the economic recovery. Do you think there is political will to commit to the state’s development?

I cannot doubt the political will. We have to be positive in our approach. Whosoever comes to power or forms government in any state, they start with political will. Anybody who comes in, they want to bring about some changes because you want to be remembered for it. What happens is that whatever you visualize, you start looking at the bottlenecks and hurdles. And sometimes you have to take a quick call on that on whether the development you want to bring about will help consolidate your support or will it not.

I believe that when political parties come to power, they have the will to develop but many don’t do it as per expectations because of some factors. Sometimes there are bottlenecks like infrastructure, or non-cooperation from the Centre, in some cases people on the ground don’t cooperate for development projects. Additionally, political will also gets weakened when those in power realize that some development projects are not going to help you politically and might damage your political prospects so your keenness to bring about those developmental projects goes down. Sometimes politics also comes into play and commitment to economic development goes down—it does not remain at the same level immediately after a party comes to power after winning elections.

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