Nitish Kumar has sought to turn defeat into victory in Bihar by means of the twin strategy of stepping down from power and choosing a successor Chief Minister from the Mahadalit ranks. The Janata Dal (United) chief obviously sees this as a master stroke: while he is perceived as having sacrificed a coveted post, his party is strengthened by a lofty gesture shown to a member of one of Bihar’s most oppressed population segments. The new man in, Jitan Ram Manjhi, is a Mushahar Dalit, a deprived community placed among the lowest rungs of the State’s Scheduled Castes. Yet the “sacrifice” rings hollow because in actuality Mr. Manjhi’s role is only to keep the seat warm for the JD(U) chief until the next election. The resolution adopted at the JD(U) Legislature Party meeting says this in as many words: “ Mr. Kumar will lead the party in the Assembly election [that is due in October 2015], and after the victory, he would assume the office of the Chief Minister again.” The resolution is audacious both for assuming that Mr. Kumar will win the next election, and for the callous disregard it shows towards the successor, who was opportunistically picked in the first place because of his Mahadalit origins.
The only conclusion the charade allows is that Mr. Kumar is in denial following the general election that saw the JD(U) sharing the last place with the down-and-out Congress. That the JD(U) and the Congress each should have won two of 40 Lok Sabha seats from the State is itself a comment on the spectacular decline of Mr. Kumar’s party, post his split with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The June 2013 break-up was unavoidable in the backdrop of Mr. Kumar’s consistent opposition to Narendra Modi and his consequent refusal to accept the latter’s leadership in the general election. The JD(U) chief summed up the reasons for quitting the alliance in a brilliant speech, the thrust of which was that Mr. Modi could not be banked upon to safeguard the “Idea of India”. Unfortunately for Mr. Kumar, the rupture also ended a structurally sound winning alliance. The JD(U)-BJP pact worked because it fused together the BJP’s upper caste base with the JD(U)’s support among the backward and Mahadalit castes. The JD(U) chief expected the void to be filled via greater support from Muslims and a consolidation of the backward-Mahadalit castes. Mr. Modi’s strong OBC pitch — premised on his own OBC antecedents — put paid to that hope. The Muslim vote got split between the JD(U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The JD(U) was routed, as was the RJD notwithstanding its last-minute alliance with the Congress. Mr. Kumar’s decision to step down has been robbed of its sheen by his premature declaration that he would return as Chief Minister after the next Assembly election.