Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kosi Rail Mahasetu and dedicated it to the nation on 20 September. Several rail projects were also inaugurated. PM Modi and Bihar Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar have been on shilanyas and an inauguration spree just days before the Election Commission is expected to blow the election bugle for Bihar. Nitish is seeking a fourth term for himself in poll-bound Bihar amidst the challenging environment brought about by COVID-19, floods and the migrant crisis.
This will be the first state election in the aftermath of COVID, and could shape the future of ‘digital politics’ in India.
A section of media and political pundits have written off the Tejaswi Yadav-led ‘Mahagathbandhan’ (MGB), and are predicting an NDA sweep. Both the groups (NDA and MGB) are facing teething troubles with their alliance partners.
Anti-Incumbency Sentiments Brewing Against Nitish Kumar
15 years in power is a long time to develop anti-incumbency. A sort of lethargy, boredom starts creeping into voters’ minds. Nitish Kumar, having seen the results in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand – where the BJP was expected to sail through – is leaving nothing to chance.
Many top politicians have lost elections while seeking a re-election for the fourth term: Tarun Gogoi (Assam), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh), Sheila Dixit (Delhi), Bidhan Chandra Roy (West Bengal)) and Lalu Prasad Yadav / Rabri Devi (Bihar).
Naveen Patnaik, Jyoti Basu and Narendra Modi are the only prominent CMs who have defied this trend.
Huge anti-incumbency is brewing against Nitish Kumar and he is short of ideas this time around. He won the 2005 elections riding on the ‘Bihari asmita’ plank and deriding ‘jungle raj’; 2010 on ‘sushasan’ plank; and 2015 emerging as a challenger to Modi – helped by the ‘DNA fiasco’ and alliance with Lalu’s party.
In 2020, Nitish is talking like the BJP and Modi, asking what RJD did in 15 years when it was in power – similar to BJP's ‘70 years’ jibe at the Congress. But even hard-core supporters feel Nitish hasn’t achieved much in this term, spending most of his time trying to keep his chair.
The Nitish-Modi Relationship & Nitish Kumar’s PM ‘Aspirations’
Nitish Kumar and PM Modi share a tumultuous relationship. While Nitish was CM of Bihar, he didn’t allow the BJP to use Modi as a star campaigner in the polls. He even returned Gujarat’s flood relief money sent in 2010.
Nitish left NDA in June 2013 after Modi was made the BJP Campaign Committee Chief, when it became clear that Modi would become the PM face of BJP.
Nitish himself harboured prime ministerial ambitions.
After being routed in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, where JD(U) could manage only two seats, Nitish made friends with his rival and bête noire Lalu Yadav.
The Mahagathbandhan comprising JD(U), RJD and the Congress stopped the BJP juggernaut in Bihar in the 2015 state elections, with Nitish retaining the CM chair, dealing a hard blow to Modi. Nitish was more popularin Bihar at the time than even Modi.
The two traded barbs during the 2015 election campaign. Modi, in an election rally, said that there is ‘something wrong in the political DNA of Nitish’ for frequently changing his political allegiance. Nitish hit back claiming that Modi was insulting the people of Bihar. A campaign was started wherein JDU claimed some 50 lakhpeople had ‘sent their DNA samples’ to Modi for testing.
Nitish also criticised Modi’s demonetisation plan.
He had said, “the Centre has to tell us what the benefit from demonetisation was. When nowhere in the world a cashless or less-cash economy has worked, how will it work in a country like India?”
In 2017, when Lalu and his family were facing charges in fresh corruption cases, Nitish returned to the NDA, satisfied that he had proved a point to the Modi-Shah duo that he could win without their support.
In 2019, he bargained hard with the BJP for seats, getting an equal number (17) to contest, and won all, save one.
However, post-results, he was again snubbed by Modi when BJP offered just one Cabinet position to JD(U). Nitish demanded at least six positions and declined the offer, citing that parties with fewer seats (like Akali Dal and Paswan’s LJP) were also getting similar representation.
BJP felt that JDU’s good performance was on account of the Modi factor. In Bihar, 35 percent of the people gave importance to the PM candidate while voting against 17 percent on a pan-India basis – twice the national average.
How Tensions Were Thawed Between JDU-BJP
Post-Lok Sabha results, and after being denied respectable Cabinet berths, there were rumours that Nitish could again ditch the NDA and either contest alone or join hands with the RJD for the state elections. However, after the BJP declared that Nitish would be the CM candidate of the alliance, tensions thawed between the partners.
Even during attacks from alliance partner Chirag Paswan, BJP stood solidly behind Nitish.
The prime minister endorsed him as the CM face of the NDA a few days ago while inaugurating several infrastructure projects, heaping praise on Nitish.
“Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has a very important role to play in taking Bihar forward on the path to progress. We must ensure ‘sushasan’ (good governance) in Bihar. The good work done in the last 15 years must continue,” PM Modi said.
Nitish-Modi Equation Is Key To NDA’s Fortunes In Bihar
Now probably in his last contest, 69-year-old Nitish needs the support of Modi all the more to ensure victory. This, from the same Modi with whom he has shared a love-hate relationship. Modi’s popularity is at an all-time high; most Indians are happy with him despite the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and border standoff with China.
With elections increasingly becoming more presidential-style, Nitish hopes that the Nitish-Modi jodi will appeal to the voters more than a young Tejaswi Yadav.
After setbacks in 2019 in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, the BJP and Modi do not want to take any chances in Bihar.
A loss would send the ‘wrong’ message. The Modi-Nitish equation is the key to NDA’s fortunes in Bihar.
Even after NDA’s victory, Nitish Kumar needs Modi’s ‘blessings’ to continue occupying the top post. As per ground reports, the BJP could end up winning more seats than JDU, and this could change the scenario – and the newfound bonhomie may come under pressure.
(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)