Wrapped in the NDA victory in Bihar is a sobering message for Nitish Kumar. The chief minister is returning for a fourth term — on this count, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory speech at the BJP headquarters in Delhi on Thursday sought to set the speculation that has beset the alliance throughout the campaign to rest. Yet there is no papering over the fact that the NDA’s win was powered by the BJP’s surge and it cannot mask the JD(U)’s decline. Throughout this election, voices of people’s discontent with the Nitish regime made themselves heard. Those voices cannot be unheard, the new government cannot turn away from the questioning. Both the letter and spirit of the verdict — the JD(U) has shrunk to 43 seats in the House of 243, making it the junior partner in the NDA and only the third-largest party in the state after the RJD and BJP — demand that, across a range of issues, there cannot be business as usual. In his fourth term as chief minister, Nitish Kumar must pause, and listen.
All too often, anti-incumbency is portrayed as a law of nature or a statistical fell blow. It is, however, made of real voter grievances, and people’s concerns. In Bihar, it includes, in the immediate term, anger against the government’s handling of the pandemic and the returning migrants, who were often forced to walk long distances home. The public health emergency has also served to frame the state’s chronic unemployment problem in stark ways, highlighting, in the process, the failures of the government on job creation, and more broadly, the shortcomings of a development model that does not focus enough on creating economic opportunities for citizens. There was loud grumbling on the ground, also, about the declining quality of education, corruption in the lower levels of government, and excessive bureaucratisation. A prohibition policy that has assured “home delivery” for the rich and spurious alcohol for the poor has become the emblem of a state authority that is being undermined all over again — remember, one of Nitish’s great successes, in his first term, was the visible restoring of the rule of law.
Nitish 3.0 is seen as a government that, having plucked the low hanging fruit in governance, has run out of both the political will and imagination to take the turnaround story it initiated into the next phase. In the next five years, the Nitish Kumar government will need to find ways of increasing state capacity and expanding the market to dispel that impression in Bihar.
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