Bihar Election Result: What Are Nitish Kumar’s Options?

This is JD(U)’s worst performance since Bihar’s bifurcation. Besides anti-incumbency, a big reason for this is LJP.

4 min read
Bihar CM Nitish Kumar. Image used for representational purposes.

Janata Dal (United) president Nitish Kumar is stuck in a curious position. And the reason for this is the mixed nature of the mandate thrown up by the Bihar Assembly elections.

On one hand, the NDA that Nitish Kumar leads has won a wafer thin majority getting 125 seats, just three over the halfway mark of 122.

But Kumar's own party, the Janata Dal (United), has fallen to 43 seats, reduced to number three position in the state for the first time.

This article will try to examine four questions:

  • How bad is the JD(U)'s performance really?
  • What does the mandate mean for Nitish Kumar?
  • What options does Nitish Kumar have?
  • What are the factors that may weigh on his decision?

Let's look at these one-by-one.


How Bad is JD(U)'s Performance?

This is for the first time the JD(U) has been reduced to the third position in the state since two key events in Bihar's politics: The bifurcation of Bihar in 2000 and the unification of Nitish Kumar's Samata Party and Sharad Yadav's JD(U) in 2003.

Even in absolute terms, it is the JD(U)'s worst performance since the two events mentioned above. Here's the party's tally in the past four elections:

  • 2015: 71
  • 2010: 115
  • 2005 October: 88
  • 2005 February: 55

This is also the first time that the JD(U) has been reduced to the status of a junior partner to the BJP, which has won 74 seats.

What Does the Mandate Mean for Nitish Kumar?

Now, there's no denying that Nitish Kumar was suffering a great deal of anti-incumbency in the state and it is natural that the JD(U)'s seat tally goes down.

However, the fall hasn't entirely been due to the natural attrition in numbers that may take place due to anti-incumbency or even due to the spirited fight given by RJD's Tejashwi Yadav.

Nitish Kumar and the JD(U) also believe that there was an element of conspiracy to its performance and this is the Lok Janshakti Party factor.

LJP Factor

  • After the results, LJP president Chirag Paswan said, "My aim was to dent the JD(U), not the BJP". This was evident even during the campaign, when Paswan put up candidates specifically in seats where JD(U) was contesting and not in BJP seats.
  • In as many as 33 seats, the LJP managed to poll more votes than the margin of defeat for the JD(U). This happened only in one BJP seat.
  • In many of these seats, the LJP had put up candidates with a BJP or RSS background, which may have affected the transfer of BJP votes to its alliance partner, the JD(U).
  • So it is possible that many in the JD(U), maybe even Nitish Kumar, could see LJP's tactics as part of a deliberate ploy by the BJP to cut Kumar to size and emerge as the dominant player in the NDA in the state.

Therefore it is a complex mandate for Nitish Kumar. On one hand there was genuine anti-incumbency against him but on the other hand due to the LJP, his party ended up doing much worse than what it should have.

There's another element to the mandate - in the second and more so the third phase of polling, the prospect of a return of RJD may have pushed certain sections of voters to consolidate behind the Nitish Kumar.

What Options Does Nitish Kumar Have?

Though considerably weakened, Nitish Kumar is still the only player in Bihar who still has some options.

1. Take over as CM, accept being BJP's junior partner.

  • The BJP has already said publicly that Nitish Kumar would be the CM even if the JD(U) gets less seats. Obviously, the party would demand its pound of flesh in terms of ministries.
  • A major bone of contention would be the home ministry, which Kumar has held in the alliance so far. But even outside of ministries, it is clear that the BJP will try to call the shots and attempt to reduce Kumar to the position of a figurehead.

2. Decline the CM's chair and support a BJP CM

In such an eventuality, Kumar may or may not choose to join the government. It may also involve seeking some kind of accommodation at the Centre.

3. Quit the NDA, support a Mahagathbandhan government.

Here Nitish could cite the alleged betrayal by the BJP through Chirag Paswan and quit the alliance entirely. This may involve offering direct or indirect support to Tejashwi Yadav.


Factors to Keep in Mind

Nitish Kumar is a complex politician and not one who can easily be second guessed. But there are a few observations that can still me made.

Former JD(U) Leader Pavan Varma’s Take

The Quint spoke to former JD(U) leader Pavan Varma who said that "the results would no doubt compel Nitish Kumar to reflect".

According to Varma, Kumar has limited options.

"BJP would want him to become CM. If he accepts CM's post from BJP, he will face humiliation."

He said that if he becomes CM, the BJP will sooner or later make matters difficult for him.

On the other hand, Varma's assessment is that joining hands with the RJD isn't an option.

Opportunities and Threats

One way out for Nitish could be to use the threat of shifting to the Mahagathbandhan as leverage to demand a respectable power-sharing bargain with the BJP.

Nitish is known to be a hard bargainer so a lot would depend on how the BJP plays its cards in negotiating with him.

There’s another threat for Nitish, especially if he chooses to stay out of power - the possible defection of JD(U) leaders to either the BJP or the Mahagathbandhan.

Another factor that may weigh on Nitish Kumar is the support base he has carved over the years - of Extremely Backward Castes, Mahadalits and women.

EBC and Mahadalit voters in particular may be wary of both a BJP-led (read Upper Caste dominated government) or an RJD-led (read Yadav dominated) one. In that sense, Nitish being at the helm with some concessions from the BJP may be the best arrangement for them.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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