If pollsters and their opinion polls are anything to go by, Nitish Kumar seems to be headed for a big rout in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. His party JD(U), which fought in alliance for 17 years with BJP, had swept the last Lok Sabha elections with their alliance NDA winning 32 out of 40 seats leaving the primary opposition RJD gasping for breath with just four seats in its tally. But, as BJP announced Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, the trusted alliance broke and the JDU decided to contest the elections on its own—an event that might cost them the next election very dearly.
Read more: Can Nitish Kumar save himself?
The dire predictions of the pre-polls are getting further emphasised by the low turnout at Nitish Kumar’s Bihar rallies. While Kumar’s rallies draw an average of around 5000 people, the BJP prime ministerial candidate’s rallies easily draw over ten times the number. If Nitish actually does face a decimation in the upcoming polls, getting reduced to a single digit tally while the ally he deserted ends up being the top most seat gainer in the state, it will be on accounts of two big mistakes—two blunders of RajNitish—or Nitish’s gamble.
In an Indian election, especially in a state like Bihar, there are two things that matter a lot to the people: firstly, issues of identity in terms of religion, caste, sub-caste, and sometimes even sub-sub-caste; and secondly, basic issues of development and security. Nitish has made grave errors on both these counts.
Blunder 1: Political miscalculations are easier to explain. Post 1990, the Bihar vote started dividing itself very strongly on backward-forward lines, bringing Lalu to power in the state. Nitish had his own base of Kurmi, Koeri and other backward caste voters. The forward castes including the likes of Bhumihars, Rajputs, Kayasthas had in the meanwhile deserted the Congress and moved to the BJP. The BJP and the JD(U) “votebanks” individually could not take on the Yadav and Muslim combination in favour of RJD till 2005. But, during their NDA alliance, their combined vote share led to a complete decimation of RJD from Bihar.
Of the two ally partners, though JDU contested on larger number of seats, the BJP clearly had a bigger vote pie in terms of traditional caste base. As the alliance split, the calculations went back in favour of BJP, and JDU was left with votes from Kurmis, Koeris, and EBCs in the state. Also, Nitish is seen in the state to be favouring a few backward castes at the expense of others (like Paswans), and also at the expense of forward castes. Further, his belief that he would garner Muslim votes on account of splitting with BJP on ideological grounds is also falling flat, as most Muslims vote tactically to keep BJP out of power in Bihar. Thus, their natural allegiance is with the RJD-Congress alliance and not with JD(U).
On the other hand, BJP’s alliance with LJP is likely to bring in Ram Vilas Paswan votes in its fold, and the alliance with RSLP will cut the Koeri votes which have been traditionally JD(U) supporters. Since a lot of JD(U) supporters realise their party is not winning, they may vote tactically for BJP to keep RJD out of power based on their previous negative experiences of the Lalu rule. All this put together has led to a huge shrinking in the already small traditional voter base of JD(U).
To cap it all, the BJP leaders were successful in portraying Nitish’s image as that of a “stabber in the back” who backed out of the alliance which people had entrusted with the mandate for the state. Nitish’s calculations have gone gravely wrong.
Blunder 2: On the one hand, Nitish has failed on his political calculations but on the other, he has also floundered on governance. The first five years of NDA rule were well received in Bihar. It was a state of extreme chaos in 2005, to which NDA under Nitish brought safety and growth. In the second term however, expectations were high. People on ground have not been able to see the GDP numbers translated into solving their real problems of sadak, bijli, paani, and development has remained concentrated in a few pockets. Nitish could have done well in NDA despite some of these developmental issues, but the performance of the government took a huge dip with the splitting of the alliance.
Some of the key portfolios which were being handled by the BJP were now to be managed by JD(U). Nitish Kumar took upon himself to manage over 11 key portfolios including finance, health, tourism, road construction, etc. With an extremely hectic schedule in election season, one man handling such huge amounts of work is by all management standards daunting if not impossible. Performance on key areas like safety dipped considerably. After 7.5 years without a single communal clash, Bihar saw 87 major and minor communal clashes between June and December 2013. Crime rates post the split increased from 18,000 to 20,000 per month. There have been allegations on some JD(U) ministers of having links to Naxalites which have also cost them dear on credibility.
Nitish, after his split from NDA, has thus failed on both counts: political calculations and administrative performance. In any election, when all the caste arithmetic goes haywire, good governance can still come to the rescue of a high performing government. Unfortunately, post the NDA split, the government has failed on these key indicators too. Hence, a complete whitewash of JD(U) from Bihar looks closer to certain.
And, if that indeed becomes the case, Nitish will have no one but himself to blame for the state of crisis he would have landed his formation in!