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Bihar elections: Nitish Kumar's last stand

In the 2015 elections to the Bihar state assembly, the then Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah had claimed at a rally in Raxaul that there would be celebrations in Pakistan if the National Democratic Alliance should lose the polls. “Crackers would be burst in Pakistan,” he said if the BJP were to lose. The same script is being reiterated by the party’s junior home minister Nityanand Rai, with his outlandish claim that a loss for the NDA in Bihar in the coming November polls will turn Bihar into a safe-haven for terrorists from Kashmir. Giriraj Kishore, another BJP minister has accused the Congress party of fielding a candidate “who is a supporter of (Mohammad Ali) Jinnah who divided India into two.”

Despite these provocative statements, it may be too soon to assume that the BJP will try to communalise the election. However it remains to be seen how the ‘Divider-in-Chief’, to use the descriptor of Time magazine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi moulds the Hindu nationalist narrative when he begins campaigning. He is expected to begin his election rallies in the state after October 20.

The BJP is lucky to have an incompetent and bumbling Opposition that keeps allows it to communalise the political discourse. This time Congress veteran P. Chidambaram’s tweet that the Congress party stands for restoration of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir gave BJP campaigners the opportunity to configure the Opposition as ‘anti-national’.  Neither Sonia Gandhi nor any Congress leader is in a position to argue that they stand with Chidambaram.

However, the BJP’s communal agenda cannot be pursued full throttle in Bihar because it must preserve the image that its alliance with the Janata Dal (United) remains strong. JD (U)’s Nitish Kumar has after all been projected as the chief ministerial candidate of the alliance. 

There is speculation that the party may well be preparing to marginalise the JD (U) at a later stage having propped up Chirag Paswan’s Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJP) as an independent player. He has fielded candidates only on non-BJP contested seats. It is also reported that a few BJP candidates who could not be accommodated by their parent party are being fielded under the banner of the LJP. 

As of now, however, till the elections shift the balance, the BJP needs to have the JD (U) by its side. Electoral compulsions have forced a neat division of labour to emerge in the poll campaign of the two parties.  The JD (U) can seek votes on an ostensibly secular platform while the BJP can deploy an array of communal innuendos short of explicit communalism. This compartmentalisation of campaigns lets a Nityanand Rai or a Giriraj Kishore to consolidate their communal base and allows the JD (U) the pretence of being secular. 

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses a virtual rally at the JD-U office, in Patna.

However, at the constituency level it does not prevent the BJP from making its campaign communally divisive. Nitish Kumar would not be impacted by this as long as communal campaigns do not transcend local configurations and seep into constituencies where JD (U) candidates are contesting.

Facing 15 years of anti-incumbency, Nitish Kumar is on the defensive. He cannot expect to win on his governance record alone. Having fed people the promises of good governance, lack of delivery can ruin a party’s electoral chances. That is why in India political parties talk of governance issues in election campaigns only when they are out of power. 

Kumar’s failure to bring back students stranded during the Covid-pandemic, and his government’s inability to deal with returning migrants and inefficient handling of floods are still raw in public memory. He has been forced to go back to the past to showcase his governance – and compare his “15 years vs. 15 years” of his predecessor Laloo Yadav (1990 to 2005). 

Where does that leave the secularism plank of the JD (U)? All north Indian caste-based parties have partnered the BJP at some point but they have all needed the Muslim vote. Unfortunately for Nitish the BJP’s overall Hindutva policies at the Centre have dulled his secular credentials. Although he pretends to be a bulwark between the Muslim community in Bihar and the Modi government’s policies (such as National Population Register and National Register of Citizens), his support within the community has been waning. In the 2015 assembly elections he retained the Muslim vote because he was then a part of the Mahagathbandhan with the RJD and the Congress. His opportunistic turnaround in 2017 in partnering with the BJP may have damaged his credibility among the minorities. 

He seems to have doubled his efforts to woo Muslims showcasing his starting of the Talimi Markaz scheme for school dropouts from the community, Hunar and Auzar schemes for skill development and a coaching centre at Haj Bhavan and other buildings belonging to the community. But this is at best a fencing operation.

Nitish Kumar’s secularism is increasingly defensive and on the retreat. This election may be his last political hurrah. Religion based identity politics is set to sharpen political positions and regardless of whether the polity becomes fully communalised or rejects his half-hearted nod to secularism—the odds are not in his favour. It is only a matter of time before electoral setbacks will force a split in the JD (U) and many power seekers within the party may well merge with the BJP.

The BJP on the other hand is the wolf at his door, waiting patiently. Nitish Kumar has to use every stratagem at his disposal to survive while the BJP is still holding back its political ambitions in reserve. The moment the JD (U) gets fewer seats than the BJP, which is not an impossible prospect in this election, it will strike. What seems like a convenient and comfortable division of labour between a communal and a secular campaign then could collapse and hasten Nitish Kumar’s journey towards political oblivion.

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