Nitish Kumar: A Political Maverick Navigating Uncertain Waters

With an 18-year tenure, Nitish Kumar, at 73, holds the title of the longest-serving Chief Minister of Bihar. His political career is marked by a remarkable history of shifting alliances, earning him both admiration and ridicule for his ideological flexibility. While his critics often point to his inconsistencies, Kumar’s undeniable skill lies in his ability to tilt the electoral scales in favor of the coalition he aligns with. This was evident in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, where the Janata Dal (United), the party he leads, secured 12 out of 16 contested seats, defying many predictions.

Kumar’s political prowess extends beyond traditional caste-based alliances. He has successfully mobilized a significant constituency of Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs), the largest group in Bihar, constituting 36.01% of the population, according to the state’s caste survey. The EBCs encompass over 130 diverse groups and subgroups spread across Bihar. Despite pre-election projections, this group largely remained loyal to the Chief Minister.

However, recent headlines have focused less on Kumar’s political acumen and more on his apparent missteps. His videos, where he mistakenly addresses Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “Chief Minister,” scrutinizes Modi’s inked finger during elections, urges voters to elect “4,000 MPs,” and misidentifies a JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP as a Lok Sabha MP, have gone viral. While these gaffes provide fodder for social media, they also raise concerns about Kumar’s mental capacity.

Even discounting occasional slip-ups, Kumar’s actions have displayed uncharacteristic behaviors. Notably, the man who severed a 17-year relationship with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just a week after Modi was declared the prime ministerial candidate in 2013, was seen touching the Prime Minister’s feet during the first meeting of the National Democratic Alliance after the 2024 Lok Sabha results. The JD(U) also accepted only two ministerial berths in the Council of Ministers, settling for “inconsequential” portfolios without protest. This contrasts sharply with the party’s stance in 2019 when Kumar, advocating for “proportional representation” rather than “symbolic presence,” had demanded at least four ministerial positions for the JD(U) considering the BJP’s five ministers from Bihar.

Further complicating the picture, Kumar’s former aide, R.C.P. Singh, rebelled against him in July 2021 and secured a Cabinet berth. However, within a year, he was forced out of Modi’s Cabinet after the JD(U) refused to renominate him to the Rajya Sabha.

While Kumar remains Chief Minister, the JD(U)’s electoral fortunes have been declining. The last time the JD(U) emerged as the single largest party in the Bihar Assembly was 14 years ago. In 2020, the party was reduced to 43 seats, dropping to third place in the State Assembly. Despite this, Kumar’s presence continues to be a crucial asset for the party, as he remains the most effective figure in mobilizing EBC voters. Party sources claim no other JD(U) leader can match Kumar’s influence within this vital voting bloc.

In a bid to address the succession question, the JD(U) appointed Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Jha, a close confidante of Kumar, as the party’s working president during its national executive meeting in New Delhi on June 29. He now holds the position of the party’s second-in-command, replacing Rajiv Ranjan Singh, who served as the national president between July 2021 and December 2023. However, neither Jha (a Brahmin) nor Singh (a Bhumihar) are considered natural successors for leading a party that largely relies on EBC votes. Speculations suggest that Kumar may choose his successor from among his trusted circle of bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) has been actively courting EBC voters, fielding several candidates from this group, with an eye on the 2025 Assembly elections. This has been particularly evident in the Purnea Lok Sabha seat, where the RJD opted to field Bima Bharti, a JD(U) turncoat, instead of conceding the seat to independent candidate Pappu Yadav. Despite losing the election, Bharti is now contesting the Rupauli Assembly seat in the upcoming bypoll scheduled for July 10, as an RJD candidate. This bypoll, triggered by Bharti’s resignation to contest the Lok Sabha elections, has become a high-stakes battle between the JD(U) and the RJD for the crucial EBC vote bank.

Kumar’s political future and the JD(U)’s path forward remain uncertain. As the party grapples with the challenge of finding a successor and navigating the complex political landscape of Bihar, Kumar’s decisions and the outcome of the upcoming Assembly elections will be pivotal in shaping the state’s political trajectory.

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