31 Seats Behind the BJP, a Diminished Nitish Faces the Biggest Test of His Leadership Yet

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Almost 20 years after he first took oath as the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar is shortly going to be sworn-in as the 23rd CM of the state. Though his first CM stint, in March 2000, lasted only seven days, Nitish Kumar came back to power in 2005 and has been in the driving seat of Bihar politics ever since.

If he finishes his fourth straight term, Nitish could go down in history as the longest-serving chief minister of Bihar.

Nitish Kumar was born on March 1, 1951 to Kaviraj Ram Lakhan Singh, a freedom fighter close to the great Gandhian Anugrah Narayan Sinha, also known as ‘Bihar Vibhuti’, and Parmeshwari Devi. Nitish graduated as a Mechanical Engineer from the Bihar College of Engineering, Patna (now NIT Patna) and went on to work for the Bihar State Electricity Board. In February 1973, shortly before he got into full-time politics, Kumar married a school teacher, Manju Kumari Sinha, who died after prolonged illness in 2007.

After the imposition of Emergency, Nitish Kumar joined JP Narayan’s movement and remained associated with it from 1974 to 1978. He went on to work with not just Jayaprakash Narayan, but Ram Manohar Lohia, Karpoori Thakur, George Fernandes, SN Sinha and VP Singh.

Nitish fought his first election in 1985 as an Independent candidate and entered the state assembly. In 1989, at the age of 38, he became an MP from Barh Lok Sabha constituency. Soon after, he was appointed Union railway minister. But after the horrific Gaisal train accident, in which 285 people died, he resigned from his cabinet position and was accommodated as agriculture minister. All through this while, he kept rising through the ranks of the then Lalu Yadav-led Janata Dal.

In 1994, Nitish Kumar got out of Lalu Yadav’s shadow and co-founded Samta Party with George Fernandes. In the subsequent assembly elections, his party managed to win only seven out of 324 seats.

Realising the political limitation of going alone in Bihar, the Samta Party forged an alliance with the BJP in 1996 and grew from six Lok Sabha seats in 1998 elections to 12 seats in 1999 general elections. Propped up by the BJP, Nitish Kumar became the CM for the first time in March 2000, but that government lasted only seven days. In 2001, Nitish Kumar returned to the Centre as railway minister and stayed on till 2004.

In many ways, the reinvention of Nitish Kumar happened after the JD(U)-BJP won the 2005 assembly elections. Realising the caste limitations of being leader of 3% Kurmi population and of focussing only on development projects, Nitish began a two-pronged approach. He started cultivating women voters, rolling out schemes like free cycles, free uniform, and scholarships, while also creating a solid Extremely Backward Classes (EBC) and Mahadalit vote base by introducing reservation for them in panchayat and municipal bodies.

He also introduced reservation for women in local body polls and in police services as well. These groups have since stood firm behind Nitish Kumar in every election, including the most recent one, which many political observers thought would be the end of him.

At 69, Nitish Kumar fought a bitter political campaign, which he called his career’s last in his final rally, and managed to hold on to his chief minister’s chair with a slender majority. But the way he emerged with far fewer seats (43) against alliance partner BJP (74) in this election, his leadership and authority is finally going to be put to the most severe test in the last lap of his career.

The way he negotiates for cabinet berths for his party, the way BJP now treats LJP chief Chirag Paswan, its ally at the Centre who damaged JD(U)’s prospects on at least two dozen assembly seats, could hold clues to the political fortunes of JD(U) and of its chief Nitish Kumar.

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