What does Nitish Kumar want?

nitishkumar

In a more perfect Indian democracy, the increasingly presidential-style showdown for the April/May Indian general election would not be between Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, and Rahul Gandhi, the latest scion of the long-ruling Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.India Flag Icon

Instead, it would pit Modi, a champion of economic liberalism and Hindu nationalism against Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar state. Kumar, who’s been in power since 2005, can claim to have transformed Bihar from an economic basketcase into one of the fastest-growing states in India. What’s more, Kumar has paired the quest for high economic growth with the values of secularism and a push for greater social welfare spending. Kumar (pictured above) has been mentioned as a potential prime minister, and he certainly will be in the future — even if Modi wins this year’s elections.

But in the odd calculus of Indian domestic politics, Kumar, formerly an ally of Modi’s conservative  Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी), is increasingly marginalized in the current campaign.

At first glance, it’s odd that Kumar and Modi came to be allies in the first place, it’s odd that Kumar would leave the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) last summer just as Modi won the prime ministerial nod from the BJP’s leaders, and it’s odd that Kumar, with the strongest counter-example to Modi’s ‘Gujarat’ model, could now be squeezed out of having any national role in Indian politics.

When the BJP decided last June to anoint Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, as its prime ministerial candidate, however, Kumar promptly pulled his party, the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U), जनता दल (यूनाइटेड)), out of the NDA, depriving the coalition of its second-largest member.

That decision now looks like a mistake, because JD(U) stands to lose most of its seats in the April/May parliamentary elections. Though it currently holds 20 of the 40 seats allocated to Bihar, projections show that the JD(U) could lose around 15 (or more) of those seats.

So what happened? 

The JD(U) is one of many parties that ultimately emerged from the larger Janata Dal Party that came to power in the 1989 elections as a response to the corruption of Rajiv Gandhi’s administration.

In the 1990s, Janata Dal came to power in Bihar under the charismatic leadership of Lalu Prasad Yadav, though his growing ties to corruption led to his expulsion from what is today the JD(U). Prasad founded the competing Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD, राष्ट्रीय जनता दल), and politics today in Bihar is essentially a three-way contest among the BJP, the JD(U) and the RJD.

Prasad, who still leads the RJD, was convicted in October 2013 on charges and sentenced to five years in prison in relation to the so-called ‘fodder scam’ during his time as chief minister, whereby he was found to have skimmed money otherwise meant to buy food for cattle.

Biharis tired of Prasad long before last autumn, however, and after nearly a decade of frustration, Kumar came to power in 2005 in coalition with the BJP. In 2010, Kumar’s government was reelected by an overwhelming margin. 

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Though Modi is now on the verge of becoming India’s next prime minister, chiefly on the basis of his economic stewardship of Gujarat, Kumar’s government might be even more impressive for the economic turnaround in Bihar, which, with 104 million residents, is nearly 1.75 times as populous as Gujarat. Kumar, now in his ninth consecutive year in office, has achieved average growth rates of more than 10% — in 2012-13, Bihar’s state-level GDP grew by an astonishing 14.48%. 

When Kumar took power in 2005, Bihar was the exemplar of everything that was wrong about India. It was poor, corrupt, inadequate and collapsing. Even today, politics are still more based on caste than on ideology (though Kumar has tried to amass a broad cross-caste coalition that, when he joined forces with the BJP, appealed both to dalits and to upper castes). Since falling behind in the 1970s, Bihar had been called everything from India’s ‘sewer’ to its ‘armpit.’ Kumar has engineered a stunning transformation — not only by boosting economic growth, but by working to improve the lives of Biharis at all levels of income. 

Kumar’s alternative ‘Bihar model’ of development promises all the economic growth and good governance that Modi’s more economically liberal ‘Gujarat model’ provides. It also adds a more secular approach (Bihar has a Muslim population of around 18%) and a greater focus on inclusiveness that has resulted in much stronger spending on education, health care and other social welfare programs. Bihar still has a long way to go — only 16% of its residents have reliable electricity and only 23% have toilets. But there’s no doubt that Kumar’s administration has coincided with the state’s largest economic boom since independence.

Though Kumar’s JD(U) was in alliance with the BJP for 17 years, Kumar is in many ways a better foil for Modi than even Gandhi, who hopes to become the fourth member of his Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to serve as prime minister. India would benefit more from a Modi-Kumar debate instead of the increasingly lopsided contest between Modi and the aimless campaign of Gandhi’s governing Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस). Though Congress is technically a more secular, center-left alternative to the BJP, it’s more associated with a decade (and more) of corruption than a fixed ideological viewpoint. 

Kumar’s rationale for splitting with the BJP is the alleged role that Modi played in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. But the personal rivalry between the two chief ministers is not insignificant. It seems clear that Kumar also had hopes of becoming the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate.

Instead, Kumar finds himself now squeezed by both sides. Modi’s  BJP wave threatens to win the majority of Bihar’s seats, and some JD(U) legislators are already defecting to the BJP.

What the BJP can’t win, the RJD threatens to take. Despite Prasad’s corruption conviction, the RJD is running in alliance with Congress, and the joint RJD/Congress effort could force Kumar and the JD(U) far into third place. For now, many Biharis believe they can have the best of both worlds — Modi at the Centre, Kumar leading the state. But a disastrous 2014 election could jeopardize Kumar’s chances to win another term as chief minister in 2015, most notably by undermining his leadership of the JD(U).

That’s left Kumar grasping to bring together a ‘Third Front’ of leftist and other regional parties throughout India. Though he announced a Third Front of 11 parties in February, the effort almost immediately failed, with the leading party in Tamil Nadu, for example, pulling out almost as fast as it joined the Third Front. With the first of nine phases approaching on April 7, Kumar has failed to unite enough of the non-BJP, non-Congress third parties to form a truly powerful alternative.

If Kumar’s JD(U) collapses when the results of the election are announced on May 16, not only will the BJP lose an ally that could have provided ideological diversity to its (likely) governing coalition, but India could lose a unique voice for a more balanced approach to galloping economic growth.

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