PATNA: From being hailed as Sushashan Babu (good administrator) to being derisively described as Palturam or Paltu Kumar, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has had many peaks and troughs in his long political career. But what has remained constant is his uncanny ability to remain at the centre of Bihar’s political ferment, staying chief minister irrespective of his party’s strength in the Assembly and the alliance he is part of.
There is no denying that he has been the pivot of Bihar’s politics for almost two decades. On January 28 last, he took his oath of office as chief minister for a record ninth time, effortlessly moving out of what was called a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) with the Left and other Left-of-centre parties like the RJD and the Congress, to the other political extreme led by the BJP. Creating such a niche in a state where his own Kurmi caste has just 2.87% of the total votes demanded craft and new alliances in ample measure. Love him or hate him but you cannot ignore him.
Through targeted welfare initiatives and empowerment programmes during his long tenure as chief minister, Nitish crafted a new coalition of castes and community interests that go beyond the traditional hegemonic groups like the Bhumihars and Brahmins or the Yadavs and Paswans. Apart from his ‘Luv-Kush’ (Kurmi-Kushwaha) voters, he has a large chunk of supporters among the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and Mahadalits.
The results of the Bihar caste survey that were unveiled in October last year, confirm Nitish’s support base if you were to map them with his party’s vote share. The survey found the EBC block was the biggest segment, accounting for about 36% of the population. There are 112 castes among the EBCs in the state. The 112 includes certain Muslims castes which account for nearly 10% of the EBC population.
This EBC Muslim group normally does not vote for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), though Nitish is known to have carved out a slice of Muslim votes even when the BJP was its ally. Anyway, if one were to discount the bulk of the 10% Muslim EBCs, a majority of remaining 26% in this category are believed to be strong supporters of Nitish. Let’s now examine the votes Nitish’s Janata Dal (United) polled in the 2020 assembly election — when its tally sunk to its lowest ever of 43 seats. JD (U) leaders believe the BJP transferred its votes to Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party — and not to ally JD (U) — to undercut Nitish’s seats. Yet, the JD (U) bagged 32.83% of votes in the 115 seats Nitish’s party contested.
This is the core Nitish vote base that stays with him come what may. If you add Nitish’s Luv-Kush voters (7% Kurmis and Koeris) to the 26% non-Muslim EBC voters, the total is 33%, which tallies with the JD (U)’s vote share in the seats it contested in the 2020 assembly polls when both the Opposition (RJD) and ally (BJP) acted against Nitish — one openly and the other on the sly. Clearly, irrespective of the times, challenges, alliance partners and the Opposition, Nitish has remained not just relevant but at the crux of Bihar politics for almost two decades.
Reputation of Sushashan Babu
Nitish earned the moniker of Sushashan Babu when he was at the helm along with the BJP from 2005 to 2013, for his excellent work and good governance in the state that was once synonymous with lawlessness and jungle raj. From that enviable aura to being verbed as Nitishing for switching sides ever so frequently while paying lip service to ideology so as to promote his supreme self-interest is now part of his legacy.
Nitish took over the reins of the state on November 24, 2005, after his JD (U) and ally BJP got 88 and 55 seats respectively in the assembly elections. The new government under his leadership worked hard to shed the image of a lawless, ‘Bimaru’ state. Development and maintaining law and order were right on top of the government’s agenda at that point in time.
During 2005-2010, hundreds of dreaded criminals and history-sheeters, including politicians with criminal background were incarcerated. It created a positive vibe for Nitish across the country. Besides, the condition of roads improved, and electricity supply was ensured not only in urban but also in rural areas. Acknowledging the five years of development work and the significant toning up of the law and order situation, Bihar gave the JD (U)-BJP combine a repeat mandate. The alliance registered a landslide victory in the 2010 state polls, with the JD (U) pocketing 115 and the BJP 91 in the 243-member assembly.
The 115 seats the JD(U) bagged in 2010 fuelled Nitish’s national political ambitions. Such was his confidence that he even cancelled a dinner hosted for BJP leaders after the ally projected the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Nitish wanted to build his political career in national politics on the strength of the good work he had done for Bihar during his first five-year tenure. Hoping to position himself against Modi at some point in time, he snapped ties with the BJP in 2013 and contested the 2014 Lok Sabha polls in alliance with the Left parties.
But that was his first setback as the JD (U) managed to win just two of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar. Humiliated, he resigned on moral grounds and made Jitan Ram Manjhi as the JD (U)’s successor chief minister. But when the ambitious Manjhi became too big for his shoes, Nitish chucked him out on February 20, 2015 and returned as the chief minister. This time, he entered into a pre-poll alliance with Lalu Prasad’s RJD for the assembly polls.
In the 2015 assembly polls, RJD emerged as the single-largest party with 80 seats, followed by JD (U) with 71. The BJP managed just 53 seats. Nitish again was appointed chief minister with Lalu’s younger son Tejashwi Prasad Yadav as his deputy.
On July 27, 2017, Nitish pulled out of the alliance with the RJD claiming Tejashwi had failed to satisfactorily defend the charges of corruption leveled against him. Tejashwi’s name figured in a CBI chargesheet in an alleged money laundering and land-for-job scam in the railways.
Nitish then stitched a fresh alliance with the BJP and formed a new government. The JD (U)-BJP combine fought the 2020 assembly polls together and Nitish was sworn-in as CM again despite the BJP winning 74 seats, while JD (U) had to be content with just 43 – down by as much as 28 as compared to its previous tally of 71 — its worst-ever performance in the elections. His party partly blamed the BJP for failing to transfer its votes to the ally so as to strategically undercut Nitish, while holding the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) squarely responsible for the dramatic slide in the JD (U)’s seat share.
Nitish was saddled with two deputy chief ministers, Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi, both from BJP. Unlike his former deputy from the BJP, Sushil Kumar Modi, who was a smooth, frictionless operator, Prasad and Devi gave Nitish a tough time. By and by, a massive controversy began building up at the national stage over the BJP’s proposed National Register for Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). In 2021, Nitish articulated his strong displeasure over the NRC.
On August 9, 2022, Nitish again snapped ties with the BJP and formed a mahagathabandhan government with the RJD, Congress, CPI-ML, CPI and CPI (M). However, he used and threw it in less than 18 months since his ambition to become the face of the Opposition’s Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) was thwarted by the bloc.
On January 28 last, he resigned as the head of the mahagathabandhan government, completing his eighth tenure as CM. Hours later, he was sworn-in as CM for the ninth time in alliance with the NDA with two deputies from the BJP – Samrat Choudhary and Navin Kumar Sinha — both bitter Nitish critics in the past. After taking oath, Nitish said he would remain with the NDA forever. Only time can tell whether he meant what he said.
While with the mahagathbandhan, Nitish had initiated efforts to bring together all the non-BJP parties on one platform to dislodge the Modi government at the Centre in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The message was that the BJP was beatable provided the Opposition gets its act together. Their first meeting was in Patna on June 23 last year. Nitish travelled across the country to drum up Opposition unity, but was not given any honourable role when the alliance started taking shape. Finding himself marginalised by the Opposition sharks, he did another pivot and went back to the BJP to head the NDA government in Bihar.
Early political career
During his early years as a politician, Nitish was associated with Socialist stalwarts like Ram Manohar Lohia, S N Sinha, Karpoori Thakur and V P Singh. He also participated in Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement between 1974 and 1977 before joining the Janata Party led by Sinha. He fought his first assembly election from Harnaut in 1985 and emerged victorious.
In 1994, he along with George Fernandes defected from the Janata Party to form the Samta Party and allied with the BJP in 1996. During that time, Janata Dal president Sharad Yadav and Lalu Prasad had a spat, following which the latter formed his Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The JD (U) was formed with the merger of the Samta Party and the Janata Dal (Sharad faction) in 2003. Two years later, the JD (U)-BJP alliance came to power in 2005.