An unusual Nitish Kumar

His uncharacteristic behaviour has been a cause of concern

Updated - July 09, 2024 11:54 am IST

Published - July 09, 2024 12:32 am IST

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar. File

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

With a tenure of 18 years, Nitish Kumar, 73, is the longest-serving Chief Minister of Bihar. He has an equally stunning record of switching sides. While his ideological infidelity has attracted mockery and ridicule, his ability to tilt the electoral scales in favour of the coalition of which he is a part remains unparalleled.

In the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, Mr. Kumar proved critics wrong again when the Janata Dal (United), the party he heads, won 12 of the 16 seats it contested. Mr. Kumar is a maverick; he went beyond caste lines to mobilise a constituency of Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs). According to Bihar’s caste survey, this is the largest group constituting 36.01% of the population. The EBCs include 130-odd groups and sub-groups scattered across Bihar. Contrary to various pre-poll predictions, this group largely remained loyal to the Chief Minister.

Of late, however, it is not Mr. Kumar’s political acumen, but his fumbles that have generated headlines. His videos referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “Chief Minister”, scrutiny of Mr. Modi’s inked finger, exhortation to voters to elect “4,000 MPs”, and reference to a JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP as a Lok Sabha MP have all gone viral. While these tickle people on social media, they also raise questions about his mental acuity.

Even if we ignore the occasional slip of the tongue, it is a fact that there have been other uncharacteristic gestures from Mr. Kumar. The man who broke ties of 17 years with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), just a week after Mr. Modi was made the campaign committee chairmanin 2013, touched the Prime Minister’s feet during the first meeting of the National Democratic Alliance after the 2024 Lok Sabha results

The JD(U) also settled for merely two berths in the Council of Ministers and for “inconsequential” portfolios without a murmur of protest. Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan Singh is Union Minister of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, and Panchayati Raj, and JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP Ramnath Thakur is Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare.

This is in sharp contrast to the party’s position in 2019, when Mr. Kumar, arguing for “proportional representation” rather than “symbolic presence”, had insisted that the JD(U) get at least four berths since the BJP then had five ministers from Bihar. It is, of course, another story that in July 2021, Mr. Kumar’s former aide R.C.P. Singh rebelled against him and secured a Cabinet berth for himself. Within a year, he was forced out of Mr. Modi’s Cabinet after the JD(U) refused to renominate him to the Rajya Sabha.

Mr. Kumar’s political fortunes and the JD(U)’s electoral destiny have not run in parallel. Mr. Kumar has continued as Chief Minister despite the JD(U)’s diminishing tally. The last time the JD(U) was the single largest party in the Bihar Assembly was 14 years ago. In 2020, the party was reduced to 43 seats, slipping to the third position in the State Assembly. Mr. Kumar’s presence helps the party scale the limitations imposed by Bihar’s electoral arithmetic.

Party sources claim that no one in the JD(U) can exert the pull with the EBCs as Mr. Kumar can. On June 29, at its national executive meeting in New Delhi, the JD(U) appointed Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Jha, who is Mr. Kumar’s lieutenant, as the party’s working president. He is now effectively the second most important leader in the party. Between July 2021 and December 2023, Mr. Rajiv Ranjan Singh, as the party’s national president, held this position. But neither Mr. Jha, a Brahmin, nor Mr. Singh, a Bhumihar, can be seen as natural claimants for the leadership of a party that is surviving mostly on EBC votes. Speculation is rife that Mr. Kumar might have chosen his heir from the close circle of bureaucrats who have worked with him in the past.

Meanwhile, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has fielded several EBC candidates, keeping an eye on the 2025 Assembly elections. Instead of conceding the Purnea Lok Sabha seat to independent candidate Pappu Yadav, the RJD remained steadfast with a JD(U) turncoat, Bima Bharti. Ms. Bharti lost the elections but is now again in the fray from the Rupauli Assembly seat as a RJD candidate where the bypoll is scheduled on July 10. The bypoll was necessitated by Ms. Bharti’s resignation so that she could contest in the Lok Sabha polls. It has turned into a prestige battle between the JD(U) and the RJD on who holds a greater sway over the EBC vote bank.

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