In general, any state election held in Bihar in the last 15 years has been centered on two issues — ‘Lalu ka dar’ (fear of Lalu Prasad) and ‘Nitish ka sushasan’ (Nitish Kumar’s good governance). This has helped Nitish Kumar comfortably sail through one election after another.
In 2005 — the first time that Nitish Kumar-led NDA had got a majority — the polls were fought by the NDA with Lalu Prasad and the alleged misgovernance during RJD rule as the singular election issue. Later, as Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar developed an image of an able administrator and was fondly named ‘Sushasan Babu’ (the man who provides good governance). Going forward, ‘Lalu ka dar’ and ‘Nitish ka sushasan’ became the formidable winning formula for Nitish Kumar.
The same formula had worked for Nitish Kumar in the 2015 state election, when he was out of NDA and in an alliance with the RJD and the Congress party. He had used this formula to ensure that he was declared the chief ministerial candidate of the alliance before the election. The upcoming 2020 state election will be probably the first state election in the last one-and-a-half decades when this winning formula is unlikely to work as smoothly as it has been so far.
In 2015, when Nitish Kumar joined hands with Lalu Prasad for the state election, he weakened the negative impact of the anti-Lalu slogan for which he could hold himself responsible. Recently, when Tejaswi Yadav, Lalu Prasad’s political heir, apologised to the people of Bihar for any mistakes committed by the RJD when it was in power, it was taken positively by many in the state. This was the first such public acceptance of past mistakes and apology by the first family of the RJD. And this could help him get rid of the burden of mistakes committed two decades back for which he as an individual and the present RJD leadership are not responsible.
On the other side, in the last few years, Nitish Kumar’s reputation of a man who had brought good governance has suffered. Even his supporters agree that in his current tenure, he has not been up to the mark and his performance is far below the expectations of the people of Bihar.
In recent years, there has been a rise in crime in Bihar. Even though it’s still low, many feel that Nitish Kumar is losing his grip on the administration. Last year, the state capital was in a mess when a few hours of rain over a few days had caused flooding in the city. The state administration had struggled to come to grips with the situation. But, as the waters receded and people in Patna had breathed a sigh of relief, there was another trouble waiting — a large number of dengue cases. Many in Patna had said then: “Forget good governance, there is no governance in Bihar.”
Now, COVID-19 cases are spreading in Bihar. The testing rate in the state is much lower than the national rate. Those who show symptoms are unable to get themselves tested, those who have tested positive are struggling to get beds in hospitals. Such is the situation in the state, that too when the state administration had a couple of months’ time to prepare before the pandemic had hit the state. It looks like instead of preparing to handle it, it had chosen to believe that Bihar would not get impacted.
During the nationwide lockdown, lakhs of migrant workers from Bihar had to face much difficulty. The initial approach of the Bihar government on this issue was not sensitive. Later, due to pressure from other state governments and growing criticism of its approach on the issue, it was forced to change its stand. This brought back the discussion to the fact that in spite of being in power for a long time and having huge talent and cheap labour available, Nitish Kumar has not been able to bring investments to Bihar.
Regardless of the double trouble of floods and COVID-19 in Bihar, Nitish Kumar looks eager to have state elections on time — it seems he is not sure if his time tested formula for winning the elections will work this time around. He seems to be worried about further harming his image of being a person who delivers good governance if the floods and COVID-19 situations worsen in the state.
(Rahul Vatsa is a researcher. The views expressed are personal)