If I had to describe the Bihar assembly election in one word, I’d use the word, guts. Nitish Kumar’s guts.
The Bihar verdict is remarkable by any yardstick. Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav (inclusive of Rabri Devi’s term) beat a quarter century of anti-incumbency. Between them the Yadav couple held the reins for 15 years and Kumar has been Chief Minister since 2005.
Add the Congress years to the combined incumbency of the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and their cumulative time in power would add up to more than 60 years - a point repeatedly made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his campaign. It is another matter that when Modi totted up Kumar’s crimes, he forgot that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in alliance with him until 2013. The BJP was with the Bihar Chief Minister for eight of his 10 years in office, which made the party an 80 per cent partner in his alleged omissions and commissions.
Modi turned out to have unwisely omitted the BJP’s own contribution to the Nitish Kumar Government. Modi’s taunts about the 60-year incumbency recoiled on him. The Mahagathbandhan (MGB) formed by the JD(U), RJD and the Congress not only overcame the humongous weight of its incumbency to win the election, it won a larger share of votes than the winning JD-(U)-BJP alliance of 2010. The MGB won 178 seats for 42 per cent against the JD(U)-BJP’s 206 seats for 39 per cent.
The odds don’t end here. Kumar and Yadav struck up a friendship that most judged as doomed – not simply because of their ruinous previous enmity but because structurally their constituencies were seen to be in conflict. Kumar and Yadav had similar ambitions and self-image; each saw himself as Bihar’s pre-eminent leader which is why they broke up. Both competed for the Muslim vote and wanted sole leadership of the community. On the other hand, Kumar’s core Kurmi vote was hostile to the Yadavs. Nor was the Congress a natural fit in this alliance as Kumar and Yadav, both products of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement, cut their teeth in anti-Congress politics. The widely shared pre-election opinion was that lack of chemistry among the constituencies would torpedo the MGB even if it had arithmetic on its side.
However, Kumar’s high stakes gamble paid off. The major reason for this was his own hard work and the visible improvement in Bihar’s social and economic indicators during his years in office. Yadav’s iron-clad hold on his Muslim-Yadav constituency and Modi’s declining appeal and his fostering of an environment that threatened minorities and Hindu backward segments contributed the rest.
type=box-article;; position=right;; articleid=7908663;; Yet, this triumph goes all the way to that one moment when Kumar decided to split from the BJP. The JD(U)-BJP alliance endured for 17 years and had delivered the elusive Chief-ministerial chair to Kumar. However, the pact also became a gilded cage from which he could not escape. Indeed, the Bihar Chief Minister seemed to hover on the brink forever, not having the courage to break free. Ahead of the 2009 general election, Kumar had a flaming row with the BJP over what he saw as Modi’s interference in Bihar. And things came to such a pass that a separation seemed inevitable.
Modi had long been the fly in the ointment in Kumar’s relationship with the BJP. Undoubtedly, this can be seen as posturing. For Kumar stayed with the BJP through the horrific 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. Secondly, he differentiated between Modi and the BJP, choosing to see only the former as communal. Like many of the BJP’s former allies, Kumar gave an exalted place to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and came around to accepting Lal Krishna Advani as his successor. This was a flawed and problematic approach because Modi, Vajpayee and Advani are all swayamsevaks committed to Hindutva and inseparably linked to the virulently right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Vajpayee memorably authored the essay “The Sangh is my soul” and was a student of class X when he penned the poem, Hindu Tan Man , Hindu Jeevan (I’m a Hindu in body and mind and my life is of a Hindu). History of course bears witness to the death and devastation that Advani’s Ram rath yatra left behind.
Unarguably, though, Modi is the most sectarian face of the BJP. And Kumar, who artfully juggled two personas, nursing the Muslim constituency on the one hand and ‘living in’ with the BJP on the other, drew the line at Modi. As long as Modi was a regional leader confined to Gujarat, Kumar did not have overt problems with him. Because within Bihar, Kumar had kept the BJP under his thumb. His message seemed to be that though in alliance with the BJP, he would never give up on his secular convictions.
This delicate balance came apart when Modi’s ambitions began to soar. If Kumar disliked and resented Modi, the latter in turn saw Kumar as a challenge to his growing clout and aspirations. But his way of dealing with Kumar was to provoke and needle him. Sparks flew when the secular Kumar and the sectarian Modi came face to face.
Sankarshan Thakur writes in his book, The Brothers Bihari , that Kumar’s aversion to Modi increased manifold after the latter deliberately compromised the Bihar Chief Minister by forcing himself into a photo-op with him. The occasion was a BJP rally held in Ludhiana ahead of the 2009 general election. To quote Thakur: “He (Kumar) had barely set foot on the crowded stage when Narendra Modi, having quickmarched from the other end, took his hand and held it aloft for the crowd to see. A cheer went up that must have buzzed like a fly in Nitish’s ears. Cameras popped and Nitish must have felt like he was being shot. It was over in a trice. Before Nitish could recover his wits, Modi had left him and retreated to his appointed place on the dais…”
The next morning’s newspapers predictably flashed this picture, leaving Kumar foaming at the mouth but unable to deny what the photograph showed. Despite this `deception’, Kumar did not exit the BJP alliance, though his counterpart in Orissa, and a fellow member of the National Democratic Alliance, Naveen Patnaik, had set an example by doing so on the eve of the 2009 general election.
The BJP-Biju Janata Dal alliance had been dazzlingly successful. Between 1998 and 2009, the alliance won two state elections in a row besides picking up the majority of seats in three consecutive elections to the Lok Sabha. The alliance had reduced the once dominant Congress to a marginal player. So to most onlookers, Patnaik’s daring had seemed suicidal. But Patnaik proved that voters respected action grounded in principles. In the 2009 election, held simultaneously to the Lok Sabha and the assembly, the BJD increased its vote share by 7 percentage points in the Lok Sabha and by over 11 percentage points in the assembly. In terms of seats too, the BJD swept the elections, leaving its former ally with no seat in the Lok Sabha and only 7 in the assembly.
Kumar obviously had his own difficult background to consider. Unlike Patnaik who has never tasted failure in politics, Kumar had had a long, tiring wait to become the Chief Minister. In 2000, he was in office for all of nine days, not being able to prove his majority. Around this time, Kumar’s opponents began to joke about his jinxed fate. An aide of Lalu Yadav would fondly tell journalists that he had read Kumar’s horoscope and he saw no sign of fame or fortune there. The high office eluded Kumar even after the landmark February 2005 election, which saw the Lalu Yadav -Rabri Devi twosome exit the scene after holding sway for 15 long years.
So clearly Kumar’s was a risk-averse position: if he fought the election on his own, he could lose the Chief Ministership which had come to him after a gruelling struggle. Thus Kumar embodied two opposite impulses: his happy cohabitation with the BJP and his abhorrence of Modi. In June 2010, Modi once again provoked Kumar by making an unsolicited contribution of Rs. 5 crore towards flood relief in Bihar. Not only this, he had his party plaster Patna with posters announcing this grand deed.
The appearance of the posters coincided with the BJP’s decision to hold its national executive meet in Patna. Kumar was not in Patna at the time, and unaware of Modi’s mischief, he had invited the BJP delegation for a dinner at home. As Thakur notes in his book, “When the morning’s papers were brought to Nitish the next day, what he saw left him so irate he couldn’t hold his cup of tea straight. Full-page advertisements had appeared in two of Patna’s largest circulated Hindi dailies – Jagaran and Hindustan – thanking Narendra Modi for the Rs. 5 crore flood relief money. “
To no one’s surprise, Kumar cancelled the dinner invite and returned the Rs. 5 crore cheque, setting the stage for what appeared to be his certain exit from the alliance. But he pulled back from the brink once again to predictable lampooning of his `bravado’ in newspaper columns. The impression at this point was that Kumar was all sound effects and nothing more 1 .
Nonetheless, Modi’s widening ambitions were soon to force Kumar’s hand. The BJP, pushed by the RSS, looked set to nominate Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate. The process was a gradual one, and Kumar had hoped against hope that the BJP would eventually weigh against going with Modi deterred by his track record of arrogance and authoritarianism. Unfortunately for Kumar, the Sangh had concluded that Modi was the BJP’s best bet in the 2014 general election.
The break came on June 17, 2013, two months before Modi officially became the BJP’s Prime-ministerial candidate. Having taken the decision, Kumar did not once look back though the prevailing view at the time was that he had shot himself in the foot. Addressing the Bihar assembly soon after calling off the alliance, Kumar presented the rupture as a clash of ideas, arguing that Modi’s vision of India was an assault on the Constitutional values of pluralism, inclusion and egalitarianism.
The Hindu commented thus in its editorial: “In a reasoned speech that deliberately transcended the secular-communal debate, he pitched into Narendra Modi, accusing him of envisioning a model of India that conflicted with the egalitarian, inclusive spirit of the Constitution. The picture he painted of the Gujarat Chief Minister was of a man driven by corporate interests, focused on the well-being of the already well-to-do. Mr. Kumar said while Gujarat had always been an economic and corporate success, Bihar had done the impossible in lifting the poorest of the poor from poverty. The theme of Mr. Kumar’s speech was that he was not in a personality clash with Mr. Modi but was fighting him for the survival of India.”
Kumar spoke as if a dam had burst. He named no names but it was clear who the object of his scorn was: “We said the person who leads the country should be secular, should have a vision of inclusive growth. This country was constituted under a Constitution whose basic values, egalitarianism, pluralism and inclusiveness, together form what we call Bharatka darshan or the idea of India. The question before us is: will the constitutional vision triumph or will we surrender to the ideology of division and polarisation? But let me promise you: we will never allow the politics of division to destroy this country. The people of this country will not tolerate it.
“There is only one idea that can go forward in this country and that is the Idea of India. If the other vision succeeds, the country will disintegrate and the Idea of India will collapse. India cannot be destroyed; we will not allow it to be destroyed.”
Not many took Kumar’s demagoguery seriously. Among the English language newspapers, only The Hindu translated his full speech, giving the text pride of place on its op-ed page. There was a reason for the lack of applause for Kumar. The media lens was trained on Modi, the man of the moment. There was an aura around Modi that was heightened by his own awareness of it. He had crowds panting after him wherever he went – within the BJP his mere appearance set off a commotion, with the rank and file giving him a standing ovation; on college campuses and at industry meets, people stampeded to meet him.
The Bihar Chief Minister was completely overshadowed by his bête noir . I remember attending a lecture by Kumar in Delhi in the days that his Gujarat counterpart was attracting iconic crowds. Expecting a rush at the venue, the organisers had installed closed circuit TV screens at various points. To the Bihar Chief Minister’s mortification, the hall was almost empty though he delivered a rousing speech centred on his ideas and values as opposed to those of Modi.
This is where Kumar’s guts comes in. He took on Modi at a time the latter was at his peak popularity. The post-break up speech he delivered to the assembly was stunningly courageous because to oppose Modi at the time and so openly was to risk antagonising not just the middle class and intelligentsia that once feted Kumar but his own voters, many of whom were swept off their feet by the Modi promise and charisma. That this was so was borne out by the JD(U)’s performance in the 2014 general election. The JD(U) won only two of 40 Lok Sabha seats from Bihar.
The 2014 general election was a personal blow to Kumar with Modi singlehandedly defeating him on his own turf. Modi showed that he didn’t need the crutch of an alliance with the JD(U). Fighting on its own, the BJP, which had for 17 years been the junior partner in the alliance, decimated the Kumar-led JD(U) and Lalu Yadav’s RJD.
The sceptics seemed to have won the day. Worse things followed when Kumar propped up Jiten Ram Manjhi as Chief Minister, mistaking that to be a grand gesture towards the Mahadalit community. As often happens in such a condescending arrangement, Manjhi soon began to assert himself. The tussle climaxed in Kumar ousting Manjhi to return as Bihar’s Chief Minister.
For all outward appearances, Kumar had finished himself. His attempts to ingratiate himself with the Madadalits, a constituency he had assiduously built, had boomeranged on him. He looked certain to pay a price for the summary removal of a Mahadalit Chief Minister.
Two things happened that acted as a combined game-changer in the 2015 assembly election. First, in a completely counterintuitive move, Kumar reached out to Lalu Yadav, once his closest friend but a bitter rival since last many years. With the Congress joining in, the MGB began to take shape. The strategy was to present a combined opposition to Modi. Secondly, and coinciding with the emergence of the MGB, was the gradual erosion in Modi’s popular appeal. In February 2015, only months after Modi’s election as Prime Minister, the Modi-led BJP was trounced in the Delhi assembly election by the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi party.
Modi’s frequent and apparently successful visits abroad appeared to inversely affect his popularity at home. He was not able to walk the talk. Indeed, if the Modi of 2014 made speeches that stirred the young and old alike, the same speeches began to grate in the absence of actual and visible delivery of promises. Increasingly, Modi’s image was of a man who was all words and little more.
When the MGB pulled off a superlative victory, the BJP immediately dismissed it as a triumph of arithmetic. But arithmetic, as has been noted by analysts, cannot work without chemistry. The constituencies of the MGB were mutually incompatible. However, when the time arrived, the MGB members seamlessly transferred votes to one another. The BJP alliance, on the other hand, was riven with rivalries with no sign of the chemistry that brilliantly held the NDA together in 2014.
So Kumar had the last victory. His `Idea of India’ speech, which had few takers in 2013, proved spectacularly effective in 2015. Kumar spoke of development and inclusion while a desperate Modi became progressively more communal. He targeted the minorities, made beef-eating an issue, and his acolyte and the BJP chief Amit Shah, spoke of crackers going off in Pakistan in the event of an MGB victory. The RSS muddied the matters further by proposing a review of affirmative action.
The people of Bihar showed which vision of India they wanted by voting with their feet.
(This article was last updated on November 26, 2015, incorporating additional material and correcting typographical errors.)