Nitish helped change the subject in Bihar. Now he must insulate that success from political uncertainty.
The recent eruptions of religious and caste violence in Bihar are a sobering portent. There may well be specific reasons,and particular contexts,for the flaring of tensions between communities that led to the imposition of curfew earlier this month in Nawada,for instance,and the attack on a Mahadalit group by upper caste villagers in Baddi village on Independence Day. Yet these incidents have been joined together by the same blamegame that broke out in their aftermath,with recently estranged allies-in-government,JD(U) and BJP,targeting each other and stoking conspiracy theories. The reality may be more worrisome than the political spectre-mongering. These outbreaks of violence have pointed to a besieged government that seems to be struggling to put itself back together again after the return of political uncertainty in the state.
The Nitish Kumar government has looked especially vulnerable since the June 16 split between the BJP and JD(U). The breaking of a 17-year-old partnership has resonated noisily in the state the two allies had together helped steer away from its past. Ever since the BJP-JD(U) combine came to power in 2005 under the leadership of Nitish Kumar,a new phase of a more purposive governance appeared to have been inaugurated in the state,overtaking and subduing an older Bihar story of lawlessness,institutional decline and unchecked caste violence. To an extent,this achievement was shored up by the new coalition of extremes that had rallied behind Nitish Kumar,made up of the Mahadalits,Extremely Backward Castes and the Pasmanda Muslims on one end and upper caste groups on the other. Now,the splintering of the NDA in Bihar may be baring ground-level fissures that had arguably been blunted and papered over by the power-sharing arrangement in Patna. This is happening at a time when anti-incumbency may also be catching up with Nitish Kumar on a variety of issues,showing up his fragility on yet another front. For all his successes in governance,he runs a government that is overly dependent on his personal initiative and charisma. By all accounts,the JD(U) lacks the ground-level leadership and network that could engage with,or temper,discontent at the local levels.
The challenge for Nitish in the countdown to the Lok Sabha election and the remainder of his second term will be to reassert the authority of the state in a newly charged political climate. The Bihar chief minister cannot afford to let the forces of polarisation roll back the governments hard-won gains. The large and consequential shift in Bihars story,the reworking of the balance between identity concerns and development-centred imperatives,must be protected from any political uncertainty that assails its government.