Bihar Elections: Rise of Nityanand Rai as BJP’s ‘Plan B’

It’s not just Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan, this election has also seen the emergence of BJP’s Nityanand Rai

5 min read
This Bihar election has seen the rise of Nityanand Rai as a prominent BJP face. He has the support of PM Narendra Modi. 

The 2020 Assembly elections are being called a landmark for Bihar. On one hand it is the first election without two stalwarts of Bihar politics – Lok Janshakti Party founder Ram Vilas Paswan, who passed away on 8 October, and Rashtriya Janata Dal president Lalu Prasad, who remains in custody following his conviction. And then there's the third stalwart, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who is battling for survival.

On the other hand, the election has seen the emergence of a new line of leadership in Bihar. While RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav and LJP’s Chirag Paswan are the most discussed names, there's another leader who may not be as young but could play an equally important role in the years to come – Bharatiya Janata Party’s Nityanand Rai.

Termed by many as BJP's unofficial CM candidate, 54-year-old Rai is presently Union Minister of State for Home and was the president of the Bihar BJP from 2016 to 2019.

He is also the head of the party's 70-member panel for the Bihar elections.

Controversial Statements

Through his controversial statements, Rai has made news on a few occasions in the campaign.

  • For instance, at a public rally in Vaishali, Rai said, "If RJD wins, terrorists from Kashmir will take shelter in Bihar."
  • Then in Bettiah, he said, "Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he'll build Ram Mandir, he fulfilled this promise. He said, he'll removed Article 370 from Kashmir, he fulfilled that as well."

These statements aren't random. Many in the BJP are upset that the entire election has become about Nitish Kumar and that the anti-incumbency sentiment is weighing their own party down as well.

“If RJD wins, terrorists from Kashmir will take shelter in Bihar.”
Nityanand Rai, Union Minister of State for Home

Therefore, Rai's attempt was to bring national security, Hindutva issues and Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the forefront.

Also, Rai isn't new to making such statements. In 2017 he had said that "if anyone raises their finger against PM Narendra Modi, we should break the fingers or chop off the hands".

Who is Nityanand Rai?

Early Years

  • Born in Hajipur in 1966, Nityanand Rai has been associated with the Sangh Parivar since his teens.
  • The context of Hajipur is interesting as it became the bastion of Ram Vilas Paswan at the Lok Sabha level and one of its segments, Raghopur, became the pocket-borough of Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi. Tejashwi Yadav is contesting from the seat in the present election.
  • Rai's political trajectory was very different from that of leaders of social justice focussed parties. He joined the ABVP in 1981 and was identified and mentored by senior BJP leader Kailashpati Mishra. He won his first Assembly poll from Hajipur in 2000 and held the seat till 2014, when he resigned to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Ujiarpur.

Support from Modi and Shah

  • Both PM Modi and the then BJP president Amit Shah noticed Rai's acumen and loyalty and made him the Bihar BJP chief in 2016, a year after the party's defeat in the Assembly polls.
  • During the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign, Amit Shah reportedly said while campaigning for Rai that he'll have an important role in the next NDA government. And sure enough Amit Shah became home minister and appointed Rai as his MoS.

What Explains Nityanand Rai's rise?

There are several reasons why Rai is considered a future CM candidate for the BJP.

One reason is caste.

  • The BJP in Bihar is heavily Upper Caste dominated but due to demographic reasons it's not easy for the BJP to project an Upper Caste CM candidate. In Uttar Pradesh, Upper Castes are 20-25 percent of the population, in Bihar they are just 15 percent. Bihar hasn't seen an Upper Caste CM in over 30 years.
  • Therefore, the BJP may have to project an OBC face. Nityanand Rai is a Yadav, who are the largest single caste in Bihar, at 14 percent.
  • Yadavs have been the traditional vote bank of the RJD but the BJP has succeeded in making some inroads. The BJP has already gained some goodwill among Kurmis, Kushwahas, EBCs, Passis and Mahadalits, through its alliances with the JD(U) and LJP. It hopes to woo Yadavs too by projecting Nityanand Rai.

Marking a Break from Nitish Kumar

  • But caste is only one explanation. The other reason is that there is a perception among the BJP leadership, rank and file and even sections of the RSS that a few BJP leaders in Bihar are too identified with Nitish Kumar’s tenure.
  • Though Rai isn't a vocal critical of Nitish like say Giriraj Singh, but he is seen as someone who doesn’t suffer from the baggage of the Nitish Kumar years.
  • This is particularly important in the context of this election, in which Nitish Kumar is facing massive anti-incumbency, with even a major section of BJP supporters dissatisfied with him.
  • Therefore if the NDA loses, leaders considered close to Nitish Kumar - especially his deputy Sushil Kumar Modi - could face a lot of flak for conceding too much the JD(U).

Challenges for Rai

However, Nityanand Rai is facing several challenges of his own.

  • There's a great deal of resentment among voters in Hajipur and Rai had to publicly plead for votes multiple times during his rallies.
  • Rai’s name didn’t come up prominently as a CM choice in any of the opinion polls. Sushil Modi and Giriraj Singh led among BJP leaders.
In his area Hajipur, Nityanand Rai had to plead for votes several times due to local resentment. 
  • Also in case the NDA loses the elections, there is likely to be a major churn in the Bihar BJP, to a great extent driven by cadres unhappy with the choices made by the leadership. This churn could have unpredictable consequences for Rai.
  • There's also a historical precedent here. Leaders who were projected prominently by the BJP in Bihar have never had it easy. CP Thakur and Shatrughan Sinha - prominent faces from the 1990s and early 2000s - both got sidelined. Rajendra Singh who was said to be the RSS favourite for the CM’s post in the 2015 polls, is now out of the BJP and contesting on an LJP ticket.

Some say that despite his rise in the BJP, Rai has suffered bad luck as far as his CM chances are concerned. Had BJP not gone ahead and supported Nitish Kumar in bringing down the Mahagathbandhan government in 2017, it wouldn’t have faced the baggage of 15 years of anti-incumbency. Instead it would have been the RJD that would’ve suffered by virtue of being Kumar’s alliance partner and BJP would have been the challenger. Many BJP supporters still say that they would’ve liked to see Nityanand Rai as the CM and Chirag Paswan as his deputy.

Therefore Nityanand Rai could have been where Tejashwi Yadav is today as Bihar’s CM-in-waiting.

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