The Bihar outcome has confirmed the
pre-poll conventional wisdom about Nitish Kumar's victory based on
his successes on the development and law-and-order fronts. But
what makes the chief minister stand out from his other equally
successful political colleagues like Narendra Modi, Mayawati and
Naveen Patnaik is the inclusive nature of his politics.
As a result, although the three others have also led their parties
to comfortable victories in their states, it is only Nitish Kumar
who is being regarded as a possible prime ministerial candidate in
2014. While Modi carries the millstone of the 2002 riots round his
neck, Mayawati is seen as being too obsessed with her own caste,
the Dalits, and Patnaik is seemingly still tainted by his earlier
association with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In contrast,
the new star of Bihar has emerged with a remarkably clean record
on all these counts.
Although Nitish Kumar, too, has the BJP as an ally, he has made it
abundantly clear that he has nothing to do with its pro-Hindu
agenda. His difference in this respect from Patnaik is obvious.
The latter retained his partnership with the BJP till the
anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal left him with no alternative but
to break his ties. Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, ensured that
Bihar remained riot-free throughout the last five years.
What is more, he went out of his way to demonstrate his
sensitiveness to minority apprehensions by telling the BJP that
neither Modi nor Varun Gandhi could campaign in Bihar. The
meekness with which the BJP accepted this diktat evidently
contributed a great deal towards reassuring the Muslims. As a
result, Nitish Kumar was able to break the longstanding Muslim-Yadav
(MY) alliance which used to be the trump card of Lalu Prasad's
Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
So, it wasn't only Lalu Prasad's abysmal failure on the
development front during his 15 years in power which led to his
downfall. Nitish Kumar also successfully eroded the basis of the
RJD's electoral advantage by, first, winning over a section of the
Muslims and, secondly, by retaining the support of the upper
castes as well via the BJP. It was clever tactics where the BJP
was made to act strictly in accordance with the script written by
Nitish Kumar by excluding the minority-baiters and also keeping
the upper castes on board.
It is this inclusive approach, which partly replicates the
Congress's earlier Brahmin-Harijan-Muslim alliance, which is
Nitish Kumar's distinguishing feature. It also marks his
difference from Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had
scored an even more spectacular victory by securing a single-party
majority in Uttar Pradesh in 2007, but who has since faded away
because of her obsessive penchant for erecting statues of herself
and other Dalit icons.
In contrast, the entire focus of Nitish Kumar's attention was on
building roads, jailing anti-social elements and encouraging the
education of girls by providing them with school uniforms and
cycles - the three areas (out of many) which Lalu Prasad had
neglected. Not surprisingly, there has been a massive response to
his appeal to the voters to support the "doer".
The outcome, therefore, marks the beginning of a new phase in
Bihar politics, where the long-prevailing excessive emphasis on
caste has been diluted - at least partly. True, Nitish Kumar also
played the caste card by focussing on the extreme backward castes
(EBCs) and the so-called Mahadalits.
Aware that he might not be able to make any inroads into the RJD's
main base comprising Yadavs, who make up about 20 per cent of the
population, Nitish Kumar turned to the EBCs, who constitute about
32 per cent, and include castes such as Kahars, Dhanuks, Kumhars,
Lohars, Telis, Mallahs, Nais (to which former chief minister
Karpoori Thakur belonged) and so on.
Then, to undercut the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ramvilas
Paswan's hold on the Dalits, the Nitish Kumar government had set
up the Mahadalit Commission to identify the most deprived among
the Scheduled Castes and focus on their upliftment. As may be
expected, the Paswan community was left out of the list of
beneficiaries of government schemes.
Notwithstanding this partisan manipulation of castes, there is
little doubt that it is still the development projects and the
improvement in law and order which are primarily responsible for
Nitish Kumar's success.
What may have also helped him is his modesty. It is not impossible
that he consciously eschewed Lalu Prasad's flamboyance, realising
that such bluff and bluster can have a negative impact in the
absence of achievement. He also remained aloof from the
controversial postures of the kind which the president of his
party, Sharad Yadav, took on issues such as the women's
reservation bill (threatening to commit suicide if it was passed)
and on including castes in the census enumerations.
It is as the "doer", who wants to restore Bihar's reputation of
the 1960s as one of the best-run states, that Nitish Kumar
evidently wants to be remembered. The voters have given a
thumbs-up to his ambition.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)