If chief ministers were to be elected directly on personal popularity, there is no doubt that Nitish Kumar would win hands down even in these difficult times. No other leader in Bihar comes close to Nitish as the choice for chief minister. But he would still be an unhappy leader because having reached a peak in 2010, Nitish’s popularity has actually gone down considerably. To be precise, Lokniti’s pre-election survey found that currently his popularity in the state is half of what it was five years ago — 53 per cent wanted him as CM in 2010; 27 per cent now (see pie diagram, ‘Who should be CM?’).
This is not to say that Nitish is no longer liked by the people of Bihar. He is, and immensely at that. When voters were asked whether they liked Nitish Kumar, seven out of ten answered in the affirmative — and his net popularity (percentage likes minus percentage dislikes) was slightly more than that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Much of this favourable view can be attributed to the fact that nearly three out four voters are satisfied with the performance of the Nitish government.
However, this likeability is not really helping Nitish in his efforts to win a third term in office and this is mainly because of his recent politics. First, voters still seem to be upset with him for having ended his alliance with the BJP, even though it has been over two years since that decision. Fifty-five per cent of the survey respondents were of the view that Nitish made a big political mistake by walking out of the NDA. The last time the same question was asked to voters a year ago, the figure was nearly the same — 56 per cent. Clearly, people’s frustration with Nitish over this issue is yet to subside. It is particularly high among the upper castes and the Kurmis. Two out of five voters are of the opinion that the JD(U) government’s performance has deteriorated since the party broke ties with the BJP. Only one in five thinks that matters have improved.
A second reason why Kumar’s popularity has taken a hit is his tie-up with Lalu Prasad who, the survey shows, is more disliked (49 per cent) in Bihar than he is liked (44 per cent). Half the respondents were of the opinion that Lalu’s rule in Bihar was like “jungle raj”, a point which NDA leaders have repeatedly harped on. This sentiment is quite strong across all communities except Yadavs. Moreover, a greater proportion of voters (35 per cent) disapprove of the decision by Nitish and Lalu to come together than those who approve of it (32 per cent). Apart from upper castes and Paswans, the disapproval is stronger than average among Kurmi, Koeri, lower OBC and Mahadalit voters too.
Finally, Nitish may have made a blunder in removing Jitan Ram Manjhi from the post of chief minister after having installed him. In particular, this decision has rankled with the Mahadalits, 52 per cent of whom saw it as an insult to the Dalit community.
With all these odds, given his personal popularity, one factor that could end up working to the advantage of Nitish is the absence of a chief ministerial candidate among his opponents. Nearly half the respondents were of the opinion that the NDA should have declared a chief ministerial candidate going into the election. Nitish would keep hoping that these voters turn to him as a reliable leader of Bihar.