On May 12, a video from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s roadshow in Patna went viral on social media. In it, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) can be seen standing meekly beside his alliance partner Modi, holding a cutout of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election symbol, the lotus. Many social media users commented that it showed how Kumar, who was once seen as a prime ministerial candidate himself, had been relegated to the sidelines.

Why is Kumar, the chief minister of a major state for nearly two decades, being forced to play second fiddle to the BJP?

Reporting from Bihar, Scroll found that the answer lay in the fact that Kumar and his party, the Janata Dal (United) were fast losing relevance. A common sentiment shared by several Biharis in six Lok Sabha constituencies where Scroll visited from was that Kumar’s political career was on the last legs.

Besides anti-incumbency, discontent over matters like unemployment and the lack of a second line of leadership in the Janata Dal (United) has resulted in the party’s support base seeking other options. Many also said that Kumar had lost his credibility by frequently switching between alliances.

Existential crisis

Kalyan Bigha village in Bihar’s Nalanda district stands out not just for being home to Kumar. Located about 60 kilometres away from Patna, Kalyan Bigha boasts of a government hospital, a higher secondary school, a government-run Industrial Training Institute, a power sub-station and wide roads leading to a four-lane national highway. It is rare for a village in Bihar to have such infrastructure.

Yet, when Scroll met a group of villagers in Kalyan Bigha in mid-April, they had complaints about Kumar. The discontent largely centred around a single theme: unemployment. “Our boys have to go to other states for jobs,” said Rajkumar Mandal, a farmer in his 40s. “Nitish has been in power for 20 years, has he even set up one big factory that provides jobs?”

But what about the developmental work in Kalyan Bigha? Mandal was sceptical about that too. “We have got the roads, schools and hospitals because this is the chief minister’s village,” he said. “But now, Nitish’s time is up. He will not remain the chief minister after 2025 [Assembly elections]. After that nobody will care about Kalyan Bigha.”

Despite his arguments against Kumar, Mandal said that he would vote for the Janata Dal (United) in the Lok Sabha elections. The reason: Mandal is a Kurmi, the backward caste to which the chief minister belongs.

But caste allegiances alone will not be enough to ensure electoral success for Kumar since Kurmis are a small community in Bihar. Harender Singh, 63, Kumar’s neighbour in Kalyan Bigha, is an example of how Kumar has limited appeal among other castes. Singh, a Bhumihar, said he was forced to vote for Kumar’s party as the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance had nominated a Janata Dal (United) candidate for the Nalanda Lok Sabha constituency, in which Kalyan Bigha falls.

Nalanda is one of the 16 seats that Kumar’s party is contesting in Bihar as part of the National Democratic Alliance. The BJP is contesting 17 seats in Bihar.

Singh said that the BJP should have contested more seats this time as the Janata Dal (United) could lose many of the constituencies it now holds. He even suggested that the saffron party should not ally with the Janata Dal (United) in next year’s Assembly elections.

“The BJP is carrying Nitish on its shoulders,” he said. “It does not need him.”

Rajkumar Mandal (third from left) feels Nitish Kumar is on his last legs.

Eroding indispensability

DM Diwakar, former director of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences in Patna, told Scroll that though the BJP cannot still completely ignore the need for an alliance with the Janata Dal (United), the idea that Kumar is indispensable has eroded significantly over the last decade.

“Nitish does not have a huge caste-based voter base as the Kurmis are quite a small community,” Diwakar said. “He had built his base among the EBCs [Extremely Backward Classes] and Mahadalits [a category of most backward Scheduled Castes],which made him a crucial element for any alliance in Bihar.”

The EBCs and Mahadalits together constitute more than half of Bihar’s population. “The formation of any government in Bihar depends on whether the Janata Dal (United) voters combine with the Muslim-Yadav voters of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, or the upper caste voters of the BJP,” Diwakar explained. “That is why Nitish has managed to remain the chief minister despite switching alliances time and again. But his appeal has eroded.”

The fact that Kumar’s popularity had waned was evident in the 2020 Assembly elections: the Janata Dal (United) was only able to win 43 of the 115 seats it contested. The party was reduced to being the third-largest party after the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the BJP. More importantly, post-poll analysis showed a shift in the EBC-Mahadalit voters towards the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

Even as Kumar managed to remain the chief minister, first with support from the BJP, then from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and then again from the Hindutva party, the crisis for his party has only deepened since 2020, observers in Bihar told Scroll.

A hoarding in Kalyan Bigha, Nitish Kumar's village, praising his tenure.

Paswan: the new Nitish?

Pintu Singh, a functionary of the BJP’s ally, the Lok Janshakti Party told Scroll that the Janata Dal (United) held no promise for the future. “Our party has Chirag Paswan, RJD has Tejashwi Yadav and the BJP has [deputy chief minister] Samrat Chaudhary,” Singh said from Hajipur constituency. “All of them are young leaders and Bihar needs a young leader. Who is JD(U)’s face after Nitish ji?”

Singh’s comments against his alliance partner signals another crucial churn in Bihar politics. With the Janata Dal (United) is on the decline, the Lok Janshakti Party is looking to project itself as BJP’s main ally in Bihar. In the 2020 Assembly elections, Lok Janshakti Party chief Chirag Paswan openly campaigned against Kumar, while maintaining that he was ready to “cut open his heart” to prove his loyalty to Modi.

Paswan’s party even fielded candidates on seats that the Janata Dal (United) was contesting, which turned out to be a major factor for the poor performance of Kumar’s outfit. The BJP had officially cut ties with Paswan for his belligerence within the alliance in the state, but never really pushed him away.

The Lok Janshakti Party continued to remain an National Democratic Alliance partner at the Centre and in seat sharing for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the party retained the six seats it had won in 2019. Even when a split took place within the Lok Janshakti Party in 2021, the BJP backed Paswan’s faction over his uncle’s.

Patna-based journalist Umesh Kumar Ray told Scroll that this was a show of confidence for Paswan as the BJP recognises him as a crucial partner in Bihar. “Even the BJP does not have a prominent leader in Bihar, so Paswan is someone they can project as a young leader to counter Tejashwi Yadav’s popularity,” Ray said. “Also, in Paswan the BJP has an ally that has been reliable, while Nitish has switched sides.”

For Kumar, the Lok Sabha elections are a fight even within the alliance to keep himself relevant, Ray said.

The fading halo of development

In the face of the threat of his party becoming irrelevant in Bihar, Kumar’s best bet still seems to be his credentials of having ushered in development in the state. Several Bihari voters credited Kumar for “doing good work in the first two terms”, adding however, that he had not done much since.

Diwakar of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Sciences said that this was a “symptom of anti-incumbency”.

“Nitish’s reputation was built on constructing roads or providing electricity in places in Bihar which had not seen much development,” Diwakar said. “But the electoral benefits of such work diminishes over time. If a village got electricity 15 years ago, that is no longer fresh in the voters’ memory. They give importance to more immediate concerns.”

Evidence of what Diwakar said was visible on the ground. In another ground report, Scroll has highlighted the frustration among the youth over unemployment and the failure of Kumar’s initiatives to uplift Mahadalits.

Once popularly known as “sushashan babu” – Mr Good Governance – Kumar has failed to build upon his reputation even in areas which were considered his bastion. In Mokama town, located 55 kilometres away from Kalyan Bigha, farmers who produce pulses, told Scroll that they have lost hope when it comes to Kumar.

Mokama, formerly part of the Barh Lok Sabha constituency, which Kumar represented five times between 1989 and 2004, is known as the pulse bowl of Bihar. However, farmers in the area are troubled by flooding of their fields due to water from the Ganga river.

Ravish Kumar (left), a pulse farmer, feels the Nitish Kumar tenure has run its course.

“Ideally we need the fields to stay inundated through the monsoon season and the water to recede by October so we could sow the crops,” said Ravish Kumar, a farmer who grows pulses. “This year we could not start cultivation even after Diwali because of flooding. Nitish ji has been promising to resolve the issue since he first became an MP some 40 years ago. But our troubles have only increased.”

In his evaluation of the Nitish Kumar’s tenure, Ravish Kumar summed up: “He had come to power because Bihar saw him as an alternative to the Lalu [Yadav] regime. Now, he has run his course and in BJP and RJD, Bihar also has other options.”