Bihar Polls: Brand Nitish Kumar Is In Crisis & There’s No Way Out

Nitish Kumar’s campaign has lacked coherence and a central message. Is he missing a strategist like Prashant Kishor?

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Bihar Assembly elections, slated to be held in October-November, are important in many ways. This is because, in this election, the reputation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is more at stake than that of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar
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Brand Nitish Kumar is facing a crisis. And with barely a few weeks to go before the first phase of polling in the Bihar Assembly elections, there’s unlikely to be any improvement.

To understand this crisis, it’s important to compare Nitish Kumar’s current campaign with the one in 2015.

With a bright poster saying “Bihar mein bahar ho, phir se Nitish Kumar ho”, election strategist Prashant Kishor had announced Nitish Kumar as the face of the Mahagathbandhan in the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections.

This slogan, along with few other campaigns, created a buzz around Kumar and projected him as someone who could take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had won a massive victory in the national election in the previous year.

This was a fight between two duos for dominance in Indian politics. On the one hand there were PM Modi and Amit Shah who had come from Gujarat and changed national politics in a short period of time and on the other hand there was the Bihari duo of Kumar and Kishor, who had fallen out with the former.

The ‘PK Factor’

When Kishor reached his home state Bihar, he had just been dumped by Modi-Shah despite scripting a memorable campaign for Modi in the national election. The scriptwriter of the ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ campaign was looking for another tea party.

Kumar had been similarly insulted by the powerful duo and lost his political heft in trying to become an anti-Modi alternative. The union of two Bihari egos was a natural and apt response to the two domineering Gujarati egos.

Nitish Kumar with Prashant Kishor after the trends made it
clear that JDU+ would come out as the clear winner. (Photo: <a href="https://twitter.com/SanjayBragta/status/663282131662188544">Twitter</a>)
Nitish Kumar with Prashant Kishor after the trends made it clear that JDU+ would come out as the clear winner. (Photo: Twitter)

Momentarily, the Bihari egos won and that too spectacularly. The victory in Bihar showed that Modi was vulnerable and with the right campaign and arithmetic he too could be defeated. But, more importantly, it showed that Kishor’s intervention in the Modi campaign was not an exception.

The victory confirmed that Indian political landscape was ready for organised intervention from political strategists who used modern communication tools and particularly exploited social media and artificial intelligence. This was much before the Cambridge Analytica happened and the world realised how social media algorithm could change the political game.

The Mahagathbandhan’s victory in 2015 confirmed that the Indian political landscape was ready for organised intervention from political strategists .

The clever Kumar saw this new trend soon enough. What else explains the rapid rise of Kishor in the Janata Dal (United)? In 2018, Kishor was made the national vice-president of the party, and it was also speculated that he would be the heir to Kumar.

However, this bonhomie soon began to unravel. Why that happened deserves a separate story. But it is clear that Kumar’s current lackluster campaign is missing Kishor’s touch.

The Bihar chief minister is now fighting a solo battle electorally and in terms of perception. Though the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has declared Kumar to be the alliance’s chief-ministerial candidate, reports suggest that the party may try to undermine him. Few have even already written Nitish Kumar’ s political obituary.

What’s Missing in Nitish Kumar’s Campaign?

Does Kumar’s campaign in 2020 look defeated and devoid of fresh ideas in the absence of Kishor? How does he plan to fill the gap created by Kishor’s exit? At least, this is clear that Kumar’s current campaign stands in stark contrast to what happened in 2015, when Kishor spearheaded it.

In 2015, Kumar, despite being an ally of the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, was able to steal the limelight and project himself as the only leader who had the might to stop Modi. Kumar’s branding pitch was as much for the electorate of Bihar as it was for the rest of India.

In the early part of PM Modi’s first term, Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal appeared as the first major challengers
In the early part of PM Modi’s first term, Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal appeared as the first major challengers
(Photo: PTI)

In the early days of Modi as prime minister, some Opposition leaders still fancied their chances against him, especially when the Congress leadership looked defeated and unable or unwilling to take him on.

The two players who tried to occupy the anti-Modi space were Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and Nitish Kumar. And not surprisingly, both borrowed from western-style election management and branding strategies.

But in 2020, Kumar’s magic is missing. He has no grand ideas to offer to his electorate and absolutely nothing to the rest of India. Be it the mishandling of the migrant crisis during the COVID-19 lockdown, unemployment or rising crimes against women, he is facing flak on a number of fronts.

In fact, a large chunk of Bihar’s electorate sees him as one of the people responsible for the mess.

According to the CVoter survey, over 50 percent voters in Bihar are angry with Nitish Kumar and want him out.

Several surveys point out that the brand Nitish Kumar has been compromised. The recent survey by CVoter said that over 50 percent voters in Bihar are angry with Nitish Kumar and want him out.

While all politicians face the crisis of credibility every now and then, Kumar’s crisis lies in not being able to counter this perception.

He needs someone to bolster his image so that he can again assert his authority as the only reliable option in Bihar.

In 2015, Kishor’s team established a direct connect with masses with his campaign ideas, be it the door-to-door cycle yatra, where workers rode bicycles fitted with calendar cards that read “Har Ghar Dustak” or “Saat Nishchay”.

He played around the personality of Kumar who could answer Modi tweet by tweet and slogan by slogan. Just before every rally, Kumar would be asked to tweet, posing questions to Modi, which shifted the news cycle the way Kishor wanted.

Compare this to the strategy now: Kumar tweeted on 2 October and then on 7 October, a surprising gap of five days in the middle of an election campaign. And the cherry on the cake was his Facebook post on Hindi Diwas in English! The disorientation in his campaign is visible.

Nitish Kumar tweeted on 2 October and then on 7 October, a gap of five days which is surprising in the middle of an election campaign.

Kumar’s campaign as of now has three prominent messages, “Parkha Hai Jisko, Chunenge Uski ko”, “Saksham Bihar, Swawlambi Bihar” and “Tarakki Dikhti Hai”. It is a clear deviation from the 2015 campaign, which focussed much more on Kumar’s personality.

Being compared to Tejashwi Yadav doesn’t help Nitish Kumar’s case. Remember he was seen as a challenger to Modi five years ago.&nbsp;
Being compared to Tejashwi Yadav doesn’t help Nitish Kumar’s case. Remember he was seen as a challenger to Modi five years ago. 
(Image altered by The Quint)

Though a poster in Patna did state “Nitish Sabke Hain”, what is not known though is whether this is the official campaign line. Also, this line is open-ended and could be interpreted in any way. A cheeky analyst could ask: Does this mean Kumar was with the BJP and then belonged to the RJD and again to the BJP and after the results could go with another party?

The absence of a good campaign strategist is hurting Kumar. For instance, on the party’s digital platforms, there have been videos where in he is compared with the RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav indirectly. This shows a lack of thinking and coherent strategy. Being compared to Tejashwi Yadav doesn’t help Nitish Kumar’s case. Remember he was seen as a challenger to Modi five years ago.

Being compared to Tejashwi Yadav doesn’t help Nitish Kumar’s case. Remember he was seen as a challenger to Modi five years ago. 

Bereft of ideas, all Kumar could do was to come out with Part Two of “Saat Nischay”, a continuation of his campaign in 2015. At some levels, it is tragic to see a leader of his stature run out of ideas for the campaign and failing in communication strategy, which he mastered in the past.

What Lies Ahead

According to news reports, Kumar holds an edge in the election. While this could turn out to be true, this campaign has been a pale shadow of what we saw in 2015. The messaging is confused, the posters don’t stand out and slogans aren’t catchy enough.

And even Kishor has shifted focus to West Bengal despite launching a high-profile campaign called “Baat Bihar Ki” in February . His last tweet was on July this year. the Bihari ego has been laid to rest in the humdrum of realpolitik.

(The author is a communications professional and co-founder of RISAP a political consultancy firm. He can be reached on Twitter at @samarthsaran. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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