By: Damini Mehta
Nine-time chief minister, popularly known as Sushasan Babu, euphemistically called paltu raam, Nitish Kumar has set new standards in Indian and Bihar politics by swearing in as the chief Minister of the eastern state for the ninth time now. In the last four years, Kumar has led governments of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) twice, including the current one day government, and Mahagathbandhan once. The move is significant not just for the state but for the impending Lok Sabha elections as well.
In 2019, the Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) (JD (U)) contested the Lok Sabha elections in an alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As a part of the NDA, the JD (U) won 16 seats of the 17 it contested, up 3 from 2014. The BJP won all the 17 seats it contested but came down by 5 seats compared to the last elections. Former Union Minister Lt. Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) won all the six seats it contested. At the time, the Indian National Congress (INC) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) were a part of the Mahagathbandhan along with Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) and other smaller parties. The alliance performed badly with its largest constituent RJD losing on all 19 seats it contested whereas INC won just one seat of the 9 it contested.
In the 2020 Bihar Assembly elections, Kumar contested in alliance with the BJP. Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD emerged as the single largest party under son Tejaswi Yadav’s leadership with 75 seats and a 23% vote share followed by BJP and Kumar’s JD (U) at 74 and 43 seats respectively. INC, as part of the Mahagathbandhan alliance with RJD, won 19 seats. Nitish Kumar’s maneuvering helped him swear in the Chief Minister for the 7th time in alliance with the BJP. However, come August 2022, Kumar broke his alliance with the saffron party, left NDA and formed a Mahagathbandhan government with himself as CM and Tejaswi Yadav as deputy.
Bihar politics is not new to Kumar’s seesaw between parties and alliances all the while managing to retain his position as the Chief Minister. Political analysts predict several factors behind Kumar’s most recent ‘ghar wapsi' to the BJP. Tejasvi Yadav’s rise in the RJD and his 2020 performance leading the RJD to emerge as the single largest party appear to have put some caution for Kumar who might not be able to maintain his position come assembly elections next year. More recently, some view Kumar’s move as a realization that a weakened INDIA alliance is unable to generate a national mobilization on issues such as the Caste Census and JD (U) is likely better placed to retain its Lok Sabha seats in 2024 with the BJP than in opposition. The unlikelihood of Kumar being presented as the Prime Ministerial face of INDIA might also have led to Kumar’s estrangement from it, according to some. The move spells ill not just for the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar but also for the INDIA alliance.
Nitish Kumar chaired the first meeting of the unofficial opposition alliance in June 2023 at his residence in Patna. According to some, Kumar was seen as the frontrunner for the leadership of the alliance had all parties agreed. However, Kumar’s exit from the Mahagathbandhan and back into the NDA fold spells bad for INDIA. According to sources, one of the reasons why Kumar decided to switch was the disagreement of the INDIA members to grant Nitish Kumar the convenor position. Interestingly, Kumar has always had an eye for a large role in national politics and as early as 2013, wanted to be presented as the Prime Ministerial candidate. The formation of the INDIA alliance is said to have added some wings to his desire but the slow progress in the alliance and Congress’ losses in the December 2023 assembly elections betrayed hopes from the alliance for Kumar.
On part of the opposition alliance, Kumar’s move is a major loss so close to the Lok Sabha elections. The grouping is already in tatters with Mamata Bannerjee’s cold shoulder in West Bengal, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Congress’ confrontation for seats in Delhi and Samajwadi Party’s cold fights with Congress leader Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh elections. Take into consideration BJP’s Ayodhya Ram Mandir ‘carnival’, INDIA is already on the back footing. Nitish was seen as a redemption for the alliance in the Hindi heartland after the Congress’ defeats in three states and his move back into the NDA fold will be an irretrievable loss for the group.