Nitish Kumar is set to return as the chief minister of Bihar state for yet another term in a tightly fought contest in which he leveraged Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity and the NDA (National Democratic Alliance). His win has important implications for bordering Nepal.
The Nitish-led NDA managed to secure an absolute majority of 125, three more than the half-way mark needed in the 243-member Bihar state assembly. However, it is the BJP that has emerged as the senior partner in Bihar for the first time with 73 seats.
Modi, whose campaigning in Bihar paved the way for the NDA win, called it a mandate for “a self-reliant Bihar”. BJP stalwarts in New Delhi have also called the victory people’s desire for good governance and development revolving around Modi’s call of “Sabh ka Saath, sab ka vikas, sab ka biswas.” (Everyone’s Trust, Everyone’s Development with Everyone)
Although Modi has given Bihar to Nitish Kumar as he has been a valuable ally for the BJP, the Chief Minister can now only play second fiddle in policy making, with BJP maintaining stronghold in the state. So far Nitish-BJP dynamics was of equal partnership, but the new mandate will diminish Kumar’s stature and credibility.
Bihar has a 726km long border with Nepal, the longest among five states. Most of Nepal’s trade with the outside world passes through two checkpoints on this border, which were blockaded for five months in 2015 during the Madhesh Movement causing a humanitarian crisis in Nepal.
The people on both sides of the border share similar languages, culture and history, and also similar problems of development and caste divisions. The open border has also facilitated a fake currency racket, contraband of all sorts, human trafficking, and after Nitish Kumar declared Bihar dry, thriving cross-border alcohol smuggling.
A serious issue has been that of annual flooding and inundation. Nitish Kumar has been vocal on this matter mainly since 2008 when Bihar was badly affected due to a breach in an Indian-built embankment of Kosi river in Nepal.
However, no progress has been made in the management of crossborder rivers like the Kosi. In August, Nitish Kumar unnecessarily criticised Nepal over “non-cooperation” in Bihar’s flood management efforts. He requested Modi to intervene in order to resolve this “serious” matter.
As per the Indo-Nepal Treaty, Bihar government’s water resources department executes the flood management work along the border. But it is futile to blame Nepal wholly when other cooperative frameworks have not been fully functional between the two countries.
Impact of Bihar polls on Nepal, Editorial
Cooperation is subject to dialogue between the two central governments, and state governments have very little influence over foreign policy matters in India. In his new term Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is in a good position to seek timely embankment works and encourage state and central government bureaucrats to speed up the long-standing water management issues between the two countries.
Nitish Kumar has been Chief Minister for 15 years, and his performance in delivering infrastrcuture and social development has waned. His alliance partnerships in the past have dented the Nitish brand.
In 2013 when Modi and the BJP’s L K Advani factions faced a tussle for declaring a prime ministerial face, Nitish sided openly with Advani even stretching so far as to say Modi would not be allowed in Bihar.
But soon after the 2014 BJP victory in national elections, he immediately went soft on Modi. In the 2015 Bihar state elections, Nitish Kumar sided with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD and Congress to return to power. But with Lalu’s jail sentence over the fodder scam case in 2018, he cozied up to the BJP leadership, which in return acknowledged his vital support for the party to make inroads into the State.
Two factors were mainly responsible for the BJP-Nitish alliance in 2020. First, the BJP brought into the political scene the young Chirag Paswan, president of Lok Janshakti Party and son of late union minister Ram Vilas Paswan, who could be used to cut Nitish to size and damage his image.
Second, another firebrand youth leader Tejashwi Yadav, Lalu’s son, was beginning to pose a threat to Nitish, whose actual poll-alliance options were shrinking rapidly. However, by joining hands with the BJP, Nitish has lost his earlier credibility as the leader capable of bringing widespread changes and ushering Bihar into a new phase of development.
The real hero of the 2020 Bihar elections, as rightly pointed by experts and hailed by media in India, is Tejashwi Yadav. By breaking his party’s traditional reliance over caste politics and Muslim-Yadav focus, and by emphasising ‘economic justice’ through job creation, Yadav led an energetic campaign and the RJD emerged as the single largest party with 76 seats.
But his larger grand alliance, the Mahagatbandhan, could not muster the required numbers with Congress winning only 19 of the 70 seats although the left parties put up a good show and increased their seats. This defeat signals that caste and religion still matters in Bihar politics and that people opted for status quo even when Tejashwi represented change.
But he will remain a strong opposition and the show will be BJP versus Tejashwi for now in Bihar. The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) led by Asaduddin Owaisi who has made a mark in Bihar with five seats this time. It contested only in 24 seats and in 2015 had not won even in a single constituency.
With the Bihar poll results, the BJP is set to maintain its dominance over Indian politics, thereby setting the stage solely for itself for 2025 in Bihar. Despite the Covid-19 related problems, crisis faced by the Bihari migrant workers in the aftermath of the lockdown, border dispute with China, and economic sluggishness, people have reinforced their faith in Modi.
Nitish Kumar, 67, is thus set to play a subdued role this time, and has declared that this will be his last election. Given his weakened position, the central BJP government would extend a helping hand to the state, but also maintain complete dominance.
The author is a Nepali journalist and researcher based in New Delhi and contributes this column, DEL-KTM in Nepali Times.