Bihar’s Changing Politics: Can Prashant Kishor Take on BJP, JD(U) & RJD?

From unemployment to growth, discontent is simmering in Bihar over a slew of issues.

5 min read
Hindi Female

The state of Bihar is politically centred around formal institutionalism and alternative politics of development, with caste being the most prominent factor. But increasingly, Bihar is looking prepared for a shift from identity politics to governance, development and principled distribution of opportunities. This shift was visible in the state after the 2014 Lok Sabha election – and it continues.

This change has further sharpened ahead of the upcoming Rajya Sabha election, when the Janata Dal (United) (JD-U) sidelined RCP Singh as he is supposed to be sympathetic to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). There are several fault lines within the ruling JD(U) that, if aggravated, will eventually create space not only for Prashant Kishor’s politics but also for the BJP. The state is facing multiple issues related to leadership, development, economic growth, inclusion, women’s empowerment, education and employability.

What has been most interesting is the corresponding ideological shift towards Hindutva, circumventing the caste factor that has dominated the state’s politics for decades. Realising this now, the JD(U) and the RJD have been increasingly calling for a caste-based census. The attempt is to repeat the Mandal moment’s effect, as many OBC sections are gravitating towards the BJP.

  • The earnestness that Prashant Kishor has shown through media and his self-styled 'Sampark Abhiyan' in Bihar is worth introspection.

  • The state is struggling with a slew of issues ranging from unemployment, low growth to changing nature of politics and discontent with the ruling leaders.

  • Lokniti data (2020) suggest that in the age group of 18-25 years, almost three out of every ten youth considered unemployment an issue that will decide their political preference.

  • In many ways, Prashant Kishor’s appeal is much like that of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose focus has been on public service delivery.

  • Can Prashant Kishor manage to present a political alternative to the people of Bihar – one that's independent of the JD(U), the RJD and the BJP?


Too Many Parallels With History

The earnestness that Prashant Kishor has shown through media and his self-styled 'Sampark Abhiyan' in Bihar is worth introspection. This can be his moment of arrival in the politics of the state as he is taking up regional parties that have failed the entire state and the electorate. On the contrary, this can also turn out to be a test for him as a politician, in which sense he has yet not ‘arrived’.

Kishor’s idea of “Jana Suraj”, revolving around people and good governance, is a 3,000-km padyatra (foot march) intended to start from Champaran on 2 October. It may be accompanied by the formation of a Bihar-oriented party/forum.

There are too many parallels with history: the Gandhian philosophical leaning, Jayaprakash Narayan’s adherence to a movement, and Chandra Shekhar’s padyatra from Kanyakumari to Rajghat, the resting place of Mahatma Gandhi, in New Delhi. Is this too heavy for a beginning? Or has Prashant precisely realised the prospect of a new political party in Bihar?

Unemployment Is the Talk of the Hour

A new party usually carves out a space for itself in the backdrop of some social movement or due to the decline of other parties due to dissatisfaction, ineffective governance, crippling public institutions, unemployment, etc. In Bihar, the moment is ripe for the mobilisation of youth on the issues of employment. The state saw a violent protest recently over alleged irregularities in the Railway Recruitment Board's examination procedure. The nationwide exodus of migrant workers during the lockdown imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic also left a poor impression. Even today, migration for higher education, jobs, and livelihood haunts Bihar.

Lokniti data (2020) suggest that in the age group of 18-25 years, almost three out of every ten youth considered unemployment an issue that will decide their political preference.

Also, more than three-fourths of respondents of the pre-poll Lokniti survey (2020) consider that the migration has increased in the state; more than 80% think that unemployment has increased; for 65% of respondents corruption has increased, and for a whopping 88%, inflation has increased. It is worth noting that in 2015, all these factors were below 30%. These numbers point to the weakening of the political leadership and a ‘governability crisis’.


The Opportunity Is Not Without Its Challenges

Though this is a political opportunity in the state, there is also a crucial challenge – guaranteeing a better alternative to this prolonged crisis of governance, leadership and employment, coupled with weak economic growth and development. It remains to be seen how the BJP and Prashant Kishor will transform this opportunity into political success.

The governance crisis is visible in the build-up of public frustration, especially among those who have lived under Nitish’s rule in Bihar and have seen a limited change in infrastructural development and law and order problems. What this generation wants is health infrastructure, educational institutions, local opportunities, routine-bound, transparent public service exams, IT industry, and MSMEs. For instance, only one-third of the respondents of the Lokniti Pre-Poll Survey (2020) consider that the condition of government hospitals has improved, and almost an equal share of respondents say that it has deteriorated; almost 42% of respondents say that the condition of government schools has gone down.

Successive governments, in failing to connect with youth and the political class, have missed out on various economic, social, political and cultural opportunities that a young population offers.

The imagination of a new Bihar built on industrial growth, social coherence, entrepreneurship, quality education, health services, infrastructure and stability is the need of the hour. And here lies an opportunity for a new leadership to rise to the challenge and march with the people of Bihar.

Prashant Kishor's AAP-Like Appeal

Nitish Kumar’s declining popularity and unfulfilled governance reforms coupled with rising discontent, specifically amongst the youth, underline the need for an alternative in the state. Over the last decade, the popularity of Nitish Kumar has been gradually declining. For instance, Lokniti data show that 60% of respondents in 2010 preferred to give him another chance, whereas, in 2015, only 52% felt so. In 2020, this preference dropped to just 36%. What Prashant Kishor needs to do is weave a socio-political narrative, heed popular grievances and capture the JD(U) and the RJD’s shrinking space.

There is a guiding light for the BJP, too, in this scenario. The party is clearly in a better position now to mobilise support. Bihar is waiting eagerly for a fresh leadership, and it can repeat what Punjab did recently.

So, there is an opportunity for Prashant. It all depends on how he engages with the public and manages the local and national narrative against his new endeavour. He has a dual challenge – creating an ecosystem and convincing the electorate. It will not be an easy task amidst a giant BJP, a determined RJD and a fluctuating JD(U).

In many ways, Prashant Kishor’s appeal is much like that of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), whose focus has been on public service delivery; its mantra is governance mixed with a populist tone and tenor. In fact, the present situation is much like a déjà vu of Nitish Kumar’s campaign in 2005 and 2010 against his political rival, the RJD, in Bihar.

The State needs a roadmap for development, agenda-based governance and leadership with a strong will to ensure equitable and proportionate growth at all levels. Prashant Kishor is decoupling himself from both the current ruling NDA and the erstwhile RJD government. He attempts to present a third ‘model’, independent of both the JD(U) and the RJD. The task is huge, with an added challenge of countering both the BJP, which will also vie for political space, and the RJD, which has strong caste-based support.

(Digvijay Singh is the founder and director of the House of Political Empowerment (HoPE) Research and Innovation Foundation. Dr Rupak Kumar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi and is associated with HoPE research and innovation foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Bihar   Prashant Kishor 

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