Over the course of 18 months, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has switched political teams twice. Does his defection to the BJP side spell the end of INDIA?
First, a quick primer on Bihar politics
The 2020 election: Nitish Kumar’s JDU fought alongside the BJP to score a comfortable victory. Together, the NDA won 125 Assembly seats out of a total of 243. Nitish’s great regional rival—the Rashtriya Janata Dal led by Lalu Prasad Yadav and his son Tejashwi—emerged as the single largest party—with 75 seats. The election also marked a significant shift in power. The BJP scored way more seats than its ally JDU: 74 vs 43. At the time, the consensus was that PM Modi’s personal popularity had saved Nitish’s backside. Or at least, that was the consensus within the saffron party:
[BJP] leaders said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity had shielded the BJP from the Nitish government’s anti-incumbency. Modi had addressed around a dozen rallies in Bihar and written a last-minute letter appealing to the state’s voters that he needed a Nitish-led NDA government for development. Party leaders said Modi had not only helped the BJP to gain a towering position in Bihar but also rescued Nitish from sinking.
Point to note: There was also a lot of chatter about the BJP’s long game—to slowly but surely eliminate Nitish: “Unlike in past governments with Nitish, the BJP can assert itself. We have almost succeeded in making Bihar politics bipolar. Once Nitish Kumar is out of the political scene, it is BJP versus RJD in Bihar.”
The 2022 defection: Over the two years, Nitish felt increasingly anxious about becoming irrelevant. Nitish remained in power primarily on the BJP’s sufferance—his party’s base continued to shrink—slowly eaten up by its so-called ally. He felt increasingly sidelined and snubbed. More importantly, the catastrophic fate suffered by Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena (See: this Big Story) in Maharashtra made him jittery. Nitish was convinced that the BJP was getting ready to split his party in two, as well.
The fallout: Nitish left the NDA to join the mahagathbandhan with Congress, RJD et al—and held on to the CM gaddi.
Where we are now: Nitish submitted his resignation—and was sworn back in as Chief Minister in a single day. He will have two BJP leaders as his Deputy CMs—including one notorious for trolling him. Of course, his former allies are furious at Nitish—with Shashi Tharoor calling him a snollygoster:)
Data point to note: Nitish has been Chief Minister since 2015. During the course of these nine years, he has flipped loyalties five times.
So why has he defected now?
For starters, because he can. Together, JDU and the BJP have the numbers to form a majority government. JDU presently has 45 seats—which it will add to BJP’s kitty of 78. Throw in the smaller parties and the NDA ends up with 127—five seats past the majority mark. The mahagathbandhan’s total will drop to 115. Even though RJD is the single biggest party, Congress only has a paltry 19 seats—not enough to reach the magic number.
There are a number of pressing political reasons why Nitish jumped right before the Lok Sabha elections.
INDIA blues: The ambitious Opposition alliance was Nitish’s brainchild. He used all his political savvy and goodwill to bring the squabbling parties together—in the alliance’s first convention in June. But when the second convention was held a few weeks later—Nitish had been pushed to the sidelines. It became an “all-Congress show”—hijacked by the Gandhis. The alliance was called INDIA—on Rahul Gandhi’s suggestion. And Nitish’s hope of being appointed the convenor of the alliance—kinda its chief—were dashed after Mallikarjun Kharge was named as the chairperson. He did not show up for the post-conclave press conference. It was the first sign of a serious rift.
Point to note: By September, Nitish was posing for photos with the PM at the G20 summit in Delhi. The interpretation of that photo-op:
On one hand, he seems to be extending an olive branch to Prime Minister Modi, signalling a willingness to cooperate. Simultaneously, on the other hand, he is sending a clear message to the Opposition INDIA Alliance while reminding it of his formidable political acumen and the potential consequences if his interests are not safeguarded.
The tipping point: probably was Rahul Gandhi. His Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra is sucking up all the energy and attention—that rightfully should have been focused on taking on the BJP. Gandhi’s many yatras have unconscionably delayed seat-sharing negotiations between the parties—which are critical to any INDIA strategy. Frustrated with Congress, both the Trinamool Congress and AAP have now refused to share seats with the party in Bengal and Punjab, respectively. They preferred to protect their bastions than rely on a party all caught up in a “non-political” walkabout.
The Lok Sabha factor: In 2019, the NDA alliance—with Nitish and Modi—swept 39 of 40 seats leaving the Opposition with one paltry seat. More notably, when Nitish ran independently in 2014, it won only two seats. As part of the NDA alliance, that number jumped to 16. The benefits of a BJP partnership were crystal clear.
The caste card: When Nitish Kumar announced the results of the first ever caste survey, it was considered a political coup. The survey showed that backward communities make up around 63% of the state’s population. This was very good news for the Opposition. Nitish Kumar has long been a stalwart champion of the Extremely Backward Classes—and has a strong hold over their loyalties. That’s 36% of the state’s electorate. Now add his ally RJD’s base of Yadavs plus Muslims—which together account for nearly 32%.
Mandir trumps Mandal: The caste survey posed a daunting challenge for the BJP—which relies on a coalition of upper and backward castes—united by a common Hindu identity. That’s until the eye-popping inauguration of the Ram Mandir. The temple added a much-needed weapon to the BJP arsenal—resonating even with Nitish’s base. Many experts see Nitish’s defection as a measure of the mandir’s success—and its likely impact on the Hindi Belt.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge tried to put on a brave face, saying, “There are many people like this in the country. Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram.” Unfortunately, the BJP has a monopoly over the only Ram that matters. Even Nitish knows that the powerful cocktail of Mandal (welfare) plus Mandir (religion) is an unbeatable formula in the North.
So what does this mean for the elections?
It is a clear win for the BJP. JDU may not have the most seats—but it holds enough to determine the outcome. As part of the mahagathbandhan, the three parties—RJD, JDU and Congress—cornered 52.6% of the vote in the last Assembly elections. There was no way BJP could match that number without breaking the partnership—and luring Nitish to its side.
Also this: Nitish’s somersault defuses the issue of the caste survey—which the INDIA alliance can no longer claim as its own.
As for the Lok Sabha: Bihar accounts for 40 seats—and the BJP won 17 in 2019. The saffron party would likely have lost some ground without JDU’s support. If the party retains its hold on the Hindi belt—along with Gujarat and Maharashtra—it has all it needs to win the election. Sealing Bihar helps seal the larger victory. As one BJP leader puts it:
We have to fight the election in the entire country. Why will we make our fight a difficult one in Bihar and get stuck there? With Nitish Kumar, an electoral victory in Bihar is now easier and we can now focus on areas we are weaker to take our tally beyond what we got in 2019.
The bottomline: We leave you with these quotes from RLD leader Shahid Siddiqui:
Biggest enemy of Congress is the ego and arrogance of its leadership. Forget about Gandhi parivar, its second, third rung leaders behave so arrogantly, and are difficult to contact. BJP on the other hand has no ego and will compromise with their worst enemies for electoral benefits.
Worse, the party is going down—and seems to be intent on taking regional parties with it. Another more pointedly said that Congress’ antics were so destructive, they seemed to be aimed at finishing “all of us non-Congress parties” as part of a conspiracy.
The Wire has the big picture of where we are now. The Indian Express editorial is very good at summing up why caste-based parties are at risk of being crushed by the BJP. Also in Indian Express, why Nitish’s defection damages the INDIA alliance’s caste-based messaging. Economic Times has behind-the-scenes goss on why Nitish ditched the Opposition. The Hindu looks at what the BJP has to gain. News9 argues Nitish isn’t such a prize catch—while Indian Express lays out why he remains relevant. Also worth reading: Our two part series on the caste survey.