With the legislators of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) parties electing Nitish Kumar as their leader, and Mr Kumar staking claim to form the government on the basis of the majority in the new Bihar assembly, the state is set to see a government marked by continuity and change. In his first full term, Mr Kumar’s core challenge was to restore the governance functions of the State — and there is no doubt that he performed admirably well. In his second and third term, Mr Kumar took his eyes off the governance ball and spent an inordinate amount of time and energy in shifting political alliances — he left the NDA in 2013, resigned as chief minister in 2014, came back to take his position at the helm of government in 2015, allied with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to win state elections that year, and then shifted back to the NDA in 2017 to cement an uneasy partnership with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In this election, Mr Kumar paid a price for his governance and political deficits — becoming a distant third in Bihar’s political landscape, his brand depleted, and dependent almost entirely on the BJP. This constrained mandate now makes his challenge in this term more acute. Mr Kumar has to first deal with political management. He will have to concede a greater share of power and decision-making to the BJP. This will keep both allies always suspicious of each other’s intent and ultimate game plan. Mr Kumar will also have to contend with a strong and possibly effective RJD in opposition, and this will be a greater challenge since the RJD has raised questions about the legitimacy of the elections. He will also have to sustain his own social base of extreme backward classes without antagonising the upper castes.
But his real challenge is on the governance front. The pandemic has exposed Bihar’s weak health infrastructure — and greater public investment is now essential to improve the state of Bihar’s hospitals and improve the ratio of medical personnel to citizens. The election has also shown that Bihar is desperate now for the next stage of economic reforms which can generate employment at home and reduce distress caused by migration. Mr Kumar must find ways to generate jobs locally. Unless he can get both his politics and governance matrix right, there is a possibility that Mr Kumar may begin this term — but not end it as chief minister.