RIGHT ANGLE – Nitish gains; Modi loses in Bihar
The return of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) fold will strengthen, in every likelihood, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign for a renewed mandate in the General Elections to Lok Sabha to be held shortly. However, in the process, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have to pay a price. Its onward march in Bihar is going to be arrested, thereby impacting its long-term prospects in one of the more politically significant states of the country.
Let me narrate my personal experience last fortnight. I had undertaken a 300 km road trip in Bihar. On my onward journey, I had made it a point to ask people wherever I stopped ( petrol pumps, roadside dhabas, local people for seeking traffic guidance) who they would vote for in the Lok Sabha elections. Except one young man, who checked the air pressure of the tires of my car, everybody did not take even a few seconds to say it would be Modi and Modi( none of them talked of the NDA or for that matter the BJP at all). That the lone young man who was vehemently opposed to Modi was a Muslim was understandable.
However, on the return journey, coincidentally the day Nitish resigned as the chief minister to rejoin the NDA ( he took the fresh oath as the Chief Minister the next day), some of the people I had asked a few days earlier had changed their mind. They were upset that the BJP had welcomed back Nitish and said that they would not vote for Modi now. They , of course, added that they won’t vote for anyone else and not turn up at the polling booths.
Of course, it might not mar the overall prospect of the NDA in Bihar since a loss of say two or three percent of votes because of the return of Nitish to the NDA fold would be compensated by the hard core followers of Nitish , though that number seems to be diminishing with every passing year. Here, I agree with India’s best known election-strategist Prashant Kishore that BJP has no tangible gain by taking Nitish Kumar and JD(U) back in the NDA fold as it would not make a huge difference in BJP’s seats from Bihar but it was psychological low to the Opposition of the so-called INDIA block.
“Nitish Kumar being a part of the Opposition bloc was not that big a deal, per say. On his own, he was not bringing something that would have turned the tables. But perception-wise, yes, there were those who believed in the Opposition strength or the new formation called INDIA. They thought of him as one of the key components of the new formation. BJP, by taking him back, has gone for a strategy of losing a battle to win a war,” according to Kishore.
With Nitish rejoining the NDA, the BJP has lost a great opportunity increasing its present tally of 17 seats. Without Nitish this tally would have in all likelihood gone up to at least 25, if not more. But now Nitish’s JD(U) would be accommodated and the previous formula in 2019 of 17 each for the two repeated. In that sense, BJP’s onward march in Bihar is going to be arrested.
It is Nitish who will gain in the short term, something he had achieved in 2017 when he returned to the NDA in 2017 after assuming power in alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal(RJD) and the Congress in 2015. He had left the NDA in 2013.
Loyalty is something that Nitish has never cared for in his life. The way he ill-treated his political godfather late George Fernades in the dusk of the late veteran leader’s political life is shameful to even write about. When left the company of the BJP in 2022 after the former keeping him as the Chief Minister despite being a minor partner following the 2020 Assembly elections, it was said that he nurtured the ambition of becoming the Prime Minister of the country by making all the opposition parties agree to his leadership. He was , in fact, the main brain behind the idea of INDIA block. If he has left something that he had created means that he did not get enough support, particularly from the Congress.
I had argued that Nitish leaving NDA was a very good riddance for the BJP. And I still stick to that view. Because, contrary to the popular perception that Nitish’s coming in 2017 helped Modi in 2019 general elections, the fact remains that it arrested the onward march of the BJP.
It is true that BJP, or for that matter the NDA, did lose badly in the 2015 Assembly election in Bihar when Nitish had parted ways in 2013. But despite being the loser, the BJP had, as a matter of fact, emerged as the largest political party in the state. Let’s go by some hard facts. On a single-party basis, the BJP managed a vote share of nearly 24.8 percent, which was higher than the 18.5 vote share of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and 16.7 percent of Nitish’s Janata Dal (United). The Election Commission data shows that BJP got over 91.5 lakh votes on a consolidated basis, followed by RJD’s 67.9 lakh votes and about 62 lakh votes for JD-U. The Indian National Congress, which fought elections as part of the grand alliance with Lalu and Nitish, could manage a vote share of just 6.7 percent.
In the 2014 General Elections to Lok Sabha, the NDA had swept the polls in Bihar by securing 38.8 percent votes. It had won 31 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats. But in the 2015 Assembly election in Bihar, the NDA managed just 34 percent votes. Given the well-known fact that there will always be a difference in the voting percentages between general elections and Assembly polls, the NDA’s overall vote-base in Bihar was more or less fine. It lost because Nitish and Lalu, who had fought separately in the general elections, came together along with Congress to fight the Assembly elections. Arithmetically, their alliance was bound to prevail over the NDA. And that was exactly what happened.
However, the point remains that even in victory, Nitish suffered a great defeat. In fact for this writer, Nitish was the biggest loser in the 2105 Assembly election. For the last 11 years, he had been the undisputed numero uno (number one) leader of Bihar, but not after 2015. He might have remained the Chief Minister of Bihar, but he was no longer the number one leader with Lalu Prasad Yadav and RJD emerging as the single largest party in the so-called “Mahagathbandhan”.
In the 2010 Bihar Assembly election, JD(U) had won 117 seats. But in the post-2015 Assembly, Nitish’s party had just 71 seats, which means JD(U) suffered a loss of as many as 44 seats. Secondly, from being the premier political party in the state, JD(U) had been reduced to a third place after the BJP and RJD.
Viewed thus, by returning to the NDA-fold in 2017, Nitish recovered all his losses of 2015. On the contrary, the BJP had to make compromises and cede space to Nitish and JD(U). Take for instance the fact that in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, BJP got 22 MPs from Bihar. But under the alliance with Nitish, between 2004 and 2014, BJP was allowed to contest only on 15 seats.
Now let us see what happened during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Nitish’s JD(U), which had only two Lok Sabha MPs in 2017 was given 17 seats to contest of which it won 16. On the other hand, the BJP , which had 22 seats in 2014 sacrificed 5 (five) seats to contest in 17 seats(on the basis of parity with JD U that Nitish demanded) and won all of them. Obviously, the BJP was the loser. The BJP managed to grab 23.6% of the total vote in Lok Sabha election 2019. The saffron party had 29 % vote share in 2014.
The vote share of JD(U) in the Lok Sabha election 2019 was 21.8%, while it was just 16% in 2014. The jump in vote share sent a clear message that the JD(U) benefited a lot from the alliance with the BJP. In 2014, the party had contested all 40 seats and had managed to win just two seats.
It is perhaps underplayed that Nitish has always risen high in the company of BJP and not the other way round. He became the chief minister of Bihar for the first time in 2000, though for exactly a week (3 March, 2000 to 10 March, 2000) when the BJP-led government at the Centre (under Atal Bihari Vajpayee) released him from the Union cabinet to just have a chance towards an NDA regime in the state. That time, BJP had 39 seats in the Bihar Assembly whereas Nitish’s party had only 18 seats. For that matter, in the 1999 General Elections to Lok Sabha, the BJP had 23 Lok Sabha seats from the then undivided Bihar, whereas JD(U) had only eight.
In the 1998 General elections, BJP had 19 Lok Sabha MPs, against 10 from Nitish’s then Samata party.
The point that emerges from above data is that despite the fact that Nitish has been much behind in terms of share of support-base, the BJP leadership has always promoted him. And to such an extent that after he became the chief Minister with a comfortable majority in 2005 in alliance with the BJP, the latter, by and by, ceded space to become a junior partner in every sense of the term. In other words, until 2005, the BJP was the largest NDA constituent in Bihar, but the then Vajpayee-LK Advani leadership promoted Nitish to the extent that the JD(U), the younger brother to the BJP in Bihar, became the elder brother.
It should also be borne in mind that Nitish, along with his mentor George Fernandes, has always been the BJP since 1995. They have contested all elections — Assembly or Lok Sabha — together, save the one in 2014, when Nitish parted ways on the ground that a “communal Modi” as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was not acceptable to him.
As an observer of Indian politics, one has to admit that contrary to the common perceptions, BJP (or its previous incarnation, Jana Sangh) has always been an honest and accommodative partner in the game of alliance politics, but this gesture of the party has rarely been reciprocated. Despite constituting the largest block in the Janata Party after the 1977 elections, it had inadequate representations in Morarji Desai’s cabinet. It had an alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party, once, in Uttar Pradesh, but BSP chief Mayawati stabbed the BJP.
In the 1998 General Elections to Lok Sabha, Biju Patnaik was no more in the scene and all over Odisha people were talking of Vajpayee. And yet the BJP willingly became a junior partner to the newly formed Biju Janata Dal (BJD) led by Naveen Patnaik.
In Maharashtra, as long as Shiv Sena was the elder brother, BJP did not have any chance to grow. The party separated in the 2015 Assembly polls of Maharashtra because of Shiv Sena’s reluctance to give adequate seats. The BJP proved its worth by bagging more than double seats than the hitherto elder brother. Even after Shiv Sena’s return to the NDA, it did not get even half of the BJP’s tally in 2019 elections. That its leader Udhav Thackeray betrayed the BJP and went to form the government by disregarding the people’s mandate is a different story.
Coming back to Bihar, I really wonder why the BJP has always given so much importance to Nitish. I think his capacity to garner the most backwards among the OBC category( the so-called EBC) has always been over-magnified. He is not Laloo Yadav, who always has retained a solid vote base of 20-22 percent in Bihar. In contrast, just look at Nitish. In 2010, he had 117 MLAs, in 2015 he had 72 and he now has 43. Come next elections, his number will further go down, if the trend continues. In fact, Prashant Kishore has predicted that he will not get even 20 MLAs whenAssembly elections are held next year.
Nitish, truly speaking, has always been a political parasite. Alone, he can never win any elections; but in alliance, he soaks the blood of the partner by snatching the top position for himself.