Never had political stakes been so high and hurdles on his way to power been so huge for Nitish Kumar. Facing the double whammy from two youngsters of Bihar politics – Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan – the ‘Brand Nitish’ appears to be on the wane and is proving to be futile in yielding the required electoral gains in the ensuing state assembly elections.
For the first time, Kumar is heavily banking on the BJP to project him for the post of the chief minister. The BJP had to publicly disown the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), one of its old allies in Bihar, and make an appeal to the people that the BJP and JDU were inseparable and Kumar would continue to be the chief minister even if the JDU won less number of seats and the BJP comes to a position of forming the government on its own.
Top BJP leaders, including Union home minister Amit Shah, have made such declarations in a bid to clear the misgivings in the minds of the electorate so that the votes of both the parties are transferred to each other. It is understood that a section of BJP voters are averse to voting for Kumar while another section of voters, especially among the EBCs, may vote against the BJP, toppling the caste equation nurtured assiduously by both the parties.
Bihar’s political scenario has changed rapidly after a bitter acrimony ensued between the ruling JD(U) and LJP over seat-sharing for the assembly elections. Nitish Kumar’s vulnerability increased after the tirade launched against him by LJP chief Chirag Paswan, who has vowed to unseat Kumar from the top post of Bihar and pledged to support a BJP-led government in Bihar after declaration of the election results.
Chirag maintained that Prime Minister Narendra Modi too was free to target him because Kumar wants him to do so. This will not make any difference as the LJP will support the BJP in forming the government.
The relationship between them ebbed further when the LJP decided to walk out of the NDA in Bihar adding a new twist to the assembly polls. The LJP move is being considered a planned strategy to keep the options open for realignment of forces after declaration of election results.
The BJP dilemma is understandable because it has recently lost its old allies including the Shiromani Akali Dal and is placed in a precarious situation wherein its two old allies of Bihar – the JD(U) and LJP - are fighting against each other.
The BJP would have to choose between the two after the assembly polls. But it would largely depend upon the election results and performance of the LJP, which is contesting against the JD(U) on all seats. The JD(U) leadership fears that the BJP might try to undermine its position once the election results are declared and the post-poll arithmetic of legislators goes against Kumar.
However, the game of one-upmanship among allies within the NDA is fraught with danger as the BJP design to tacitly support the LJP may eventually boomerang on it.
The RJD chief ministerial face, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, has been unsparing in his offensive against Kumar ever since the JD(U) leader switched over to the NDA and formed the government in 2017 with the help of the BJP. Tejashwi’s own hope of getting a substantial number of assembly seats hinges on the possibility of a respectable performance in the ensuing elections.
Not to land behind in eliciting benefits out of the ongoing row between the JD(U) and LJP, the RJD leader has expressed his sympathy for Chirag from public platforms, saying that Kumar has been unfair to the young LJP leader since declaration of the assembly polls. This move is being considered a masterstroke of Tejashwi to play a crucial role in government formation after polls and also to rejuvenate the party, which has been floundering after successive electoral losses.
Amid the blistering attack from both the youngsters, Kumar has seemingly lost his political heft and become vulnerable at least in terms of perception. The political narratives in this election have reached a stage where the JD(U) leadership remains the target of scorn and cynicism.
Before 2015 elections, Kumar displayed his consummate knack of projecting himself as a ‘different persona’ among the existing political leaders of Bihar through his model of governance and the agenda of development with justice.
The ongoing electoral joust is proving to be tough for Kumar as he is forced to walk a tightrope after being pushed to the brink by forces active against him, outside and within the NDA. People’s aspiration and hope associated with the persona of the chief minister are also fast dwindling as he is fighting a solo battle.
Kumar’s campaign looks devoid of concrete agenda except his next chapter of the Saat Nischay-2 programme. But it has been pinned down by Chirag when he leveled allegations of corruption in the implementation of the first part of the flagship scheme assuring that an inquiry would be instituted and all the accused would be sent to jail.
When he had joined the Mahagathbandhan in 2015, he had an unassailable vote bank of Muslims, majority of the Backward Castes, Extremely Backward Castes and a section of Dalit votes. The Grand Alliance victory in 2015 had reaffirmed that a united Mandal fort was impregnable in Bihar.
It was Kumar who had sliced the Mandal bloc with his well-thought-out social combination and right caste arithmetic in November 2005 and 2010 elections. He had created a vote bank of upper castes, EBCs, part of the backward castes and the Dalits.
Amid the current hullabaloo of realpolitik, the political landscape presents fractured caste equations overshadowing ‘Brand Nitish’ in Bihar this time.