Lok Sabha Election

News Analysis: Nitish Kumar, now in a supporting role

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during an election rally at Forbesganj in Araria district of Bihar on Saturday.   | Photo Credit: Ranjeet Kumar

Lallan Kumar, a farmer in Borva village in Darbhanga, is rooting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his list reasons for doing so is long. “Electricity, roads, development..” He has also received ₹2,000 under a new relief scheme for farmers, an initiative of the PM…” “It is good that Nitish Kumar joined hands with the BJP,” he says. “He and Modiji are unbeatable in combination.”

Mr. Lallan Kumar is a Kurmi, like Mr. Nitish Kumar, an Other Backward Caste (OBC) that is not more than 4% of Bihar’s population. Mr. Nitish Kumar labels his politics as “development with social justice” the base of which is formed by aggregating numerous such Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs). That, along with the BJP’s strong upper caste base, and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Dalit support, makes the catchment area of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the State.

Mr. Nitish Kumar’s personality has been critical to the NDA’s rise. In 2005, the State had two Assembly elections. In the first, the NDA did not declare a CM candidate and the result was hung; in the second, Mr. Nitish Kumar was declared the CM candidate and the 15-year old regime of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ended.

In the first election, the OBCs and the EBCs feared a return of upper caste rule if the NDA won; in the second they were assured that the rule would transfer from one OBC to another. That centrality of Mr. Nitish Kumar in the NDA could be under threat, as the underlying identity politics that compelled it, is in a flux.

“We are all for Hindutva after all, no? And this is a Hindu-Muslim fight,” Mr. Lallan Kumar explained what excites him about Mr. Modi’s strident positioning on Pakistan. Mr. Modi and Mr. Nitish Kumar are equal reasons for his vote for the NDA this time.

Liquor ban fiasco

The CM of Bihar for 14 years now with a short break, Mr. Nitish Kumar has reached out to social groups beyond his own caste with a governance agenda. But the prohibition of liquor that he imposed in 2016 has toppled governance. Bootlegging is rampant and the police are hand in glove, according to multiple accounts from officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Even girl students are into it. They earn ₹150 to 200 per home delivery. Enterprising police officials have bought breath analyzers with private money and go around checking for violators. Prohibition has created a massive underground that is only expanding,” an official said. “The state in Bihar has limited capacity and now its entire capacity is being focussed on a single issue — enforcing prohibition,” said Shaibal Gupta, member-secretary of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute.

While prohibition has become a money-spinner for some, and the influential are not touched, the poor and the lower castes — Mr. Nitish Kumar’s political base — are facing all the brunt of the draconian law. The first convict under the prohibition law, a 45-year-old widow from an EBC caste, was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Hindutva factor

“In Bihar’s subaltern politics, Lalu Prasad is an enabler and Nitish Kumar is a provider. The loyalty to enabler is stronger than it is to the provider,” points out Mr. Gupta. Mr. Nitish Kumar parted with the BJP ahead of the 2014 elections, joined hands with Mr. Yadav in 2015 and then returned to the BJP. While his authenticity has been diminished due to frequent change of hearts, Mr. Nitish Kumar is also facing the reality of Hindu identity getting precedence for many members of the backward castes. “Religiosity among the OBCs and the EBCs is constantly rising,” pointed out Shivanand Tewari, RJD leader and former Minister.

Zero tolerance

Mr. Nitish Kumar has, however, maintained a policy of zero tolerance towards communal provocation. Officials say there is always strict administrative action against those who incite communal tension. The Begusarai district administration took immediate action against BJP candidate Giriraj Singh for making allegedly insulting statements about Muslims this week. “Muslims may not vote for him this time, but he has not burnt the bridges with the community,” an official noted.

The JD(U) and the BJP are contesting 17 seats each (Mr. Paswan’s LJP in six seats), suggesting parity, but Mr. Modi is the centre of the NDA campaign. Mr. Nitish Kumar has explained it away by stressing that this is a Lok Sabha election. But that is no guarantee that his primacy will return.

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 10:35:05 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/elections/lok-sabha-2019/nitish-kumar-now-in-a-supporting-role/article26967810.ece

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