Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kosi Rail Mahasetu and dedicated it to the nation on 20 September. Several rail projects were also inaugurated. PM Modi and Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar have been on shilanyas and inauguration spree just days before the Election Commission is expected to blow the poll bugle for Bihar. Nitish is seeking a 4th term for himself in poll bound Bihar amidst a challenging environment of COVID, floods and migrant crisis.
This will be the first state elections in the aftermath of COVID and could shape the future of digital politics in India. A section of media and political pundits have written off Tejaswi Yadav led Mahagathbandhan (MGB) and are predicting a NDA sweep. Both the groups (NDA and MGB) are facing teething troubles from alliance partners.
Anti-Incumbency Sentiments Brewing Against Nitish Kumar
15 years in power is a long enough time to develop anti-incumbency. A sort of lethargy, boredom starts creeping in voters’ minds. Nitish having seen the results in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, where BJP was expected to sail through easily, is leaving nothing to chance.
Many top politicians have lost elections while seeking re-election for 4th term - Tarun Gogoi (Assam), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh), Sheila Dixit (Delhi), Bidhan Chandra Roy (West Bengal)) and Lalu Prasad Yadav / Rabri Devi (Bihar). Naveen Patnaik, Jyoti Basu and Narendra Modi are the only prominent CMs who have defied this trend.
Huge anti-incumbency is brewing against Nitish Kumar and he is short of ideas this time around. He won 2005 elections riding on Bihari asmita plank and deriding jungle raj, 2010 on sushasan plank and 2015 emerging as a challenger to Modi, helped by the DNA fiasco and alliance with Lalu’s party.
In 2020, he is talking like BJP and Modi, asking what RJD did in 15 years when it was in power, similar to BJP's 70 years jibe on Congress at the centre. But even hard-core supporters feel he hasn’t achieved much in this term, spending most days to keep his chair. .
The Nitish-Modi Relationship & Nitish Kumar’s PM ‘Aspirations’
Nitish and Modi share a tumultuous relationship. While Nitish was CM of Bihar, he didn’t allow BJP to use Modi as star campaigner in polls. He even returned Gujarat’s flood relief money sent in 2010.
Nitish left NDA in June 2013 after Modi was made the BJP Campaign Committee Chief when it became clear that Modi would be the PM face of BJP. Nitish himself nurtured Prime Ministerial ambitions.
"The people of this country will never accept divisive forces. Their aim is to divide and rule this nation. We knew this would happen. About them, we can say ," Kumar was quoted by NDTV as saying, at that point.
After being routed in Lok Sabha 2014, where JD(U) could manage only two seats, Nitish made friends with his rival and bête noire Lalu Yadav. The Mahagathbandhan comprising JD(U), RJD and the Congress stopped the BJP juggernaut in Bihar in 2015 state elections, with Nitish retaining the CM chair, dealing a hard blow to Modi. Nitish was in Bihar than even Modi.
The two exchanged heated barbs during the 2015 election campaign. Modi in an election rally said that there is something wrong in the political DNA of Nitish for frequently changing his political allegiance. Nitish hit back claiming Modi was insulting the people of Bihar. A campaign was started wherein JDU claimed some people sent their DNA samples to Modi for testing.
Nitish also criticized Modi’s demonetization plan. He said, "The Centre has to tell us what the benefit from demonetisation was. When nowhere in the world a cashless or less cash economy has worked, how will it work in a country like India?”
In 2017, when Lalu and family were embroiled in fresh corruption cases, Nitish returned to the NDA, satisfied that he had proved a point to the Modi-Shah duo that he could win without their support. In 2019, he bargained hard with the BJP for seats, getting an equal number (17) to contest and won all, barring one.
However, post results, he was again snubbed by Modi when BJP offered just 1 cabinet position to JD(U). Nitish demanded at least 6 positions and declined the offer citing parties with fewer seats (like Akali Dal and Paswan’s LJP) were also getting similar representation.
BJP felt JDU’s good performance was on account of the Modi factor. In Bihar, 35% people gave importance to the PM candidate while voting against 17% on pan India basis, twice the national average.
How Tensions Were Thawed Between JDU-BJP
Post Lok Sabha results and after being denied respectable cabinet berths, there were rumours that Nitish could again ditch NDA and either contest alone or join hands with RJD for state elections. However, after BJP declared that Nitish would be the CM candidate of the alliance, tensions have thawed between the partners. Even during attacks from alliance partner Chirag Paswan, BJP has stood solidly behind Nitish.
The Prime Minister endorsed him as CM face of NDA a few days ago while inaugurating several infrastructure projects, heaping praise on Nitish.
"Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has a very important role to play in taking Bihar forward on the path to progress. We must ensure sushasan [good governance] in Bihar. The good work done in the last 15 years must continue,"
Nitish-Modi Equation Is Key To NDA’s Fortunes In Bihar
Now probably in his last contest, he is 69 years old, Nitish needs support of Modi, all the more to ensure victory. From the same Modi with whom he has shared a love-hate relationship. Modi’s popularity is at an , majority Indians are happy with the handling of the coronavirus pandemic and standoff with China at the border.
With elections increasingly becoming presidential style, Nitish hopes that the Nitish-Modi jodi will appeal to the voters more than the young Tejaswi Yadav. Modi’s popularity provides him the buffer which could take care of any dip in his leadership ratings. As per , Nitish is currently trailing Tejashwi on all the three parameters of trust, understanding and capability.
After setbacks last year in Maharashtra and Jharkhand, BJP and Modi, do not want to take any chance in Bihar. A loss would send a very wrong message. The Modi-Nitish equation is the key to NDA’s fortunes in Bihar.
Even after NDA’s victory, Nitish needs the blessings of Modi to continue occupying the top post. As per ground reports, BJP could end up winning more seats than JDU, and this could change the scenario and the newly found bonhomie will come under pressure.
(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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