The secret of Nitish Kumar’s political success
We identify three key elements of his leadership style that can be teased out from his way of functioning — managerial, perceptional, and technocratic
In the 1869 preface to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx describes his purpose as being to demonstrate how circumstances in France had made it possible for “a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part”. In that book, Marx showcases how an unlikely trifling leader such as Louis Bonaparte captured political power and was able to rule France for nearly three decades.
With all respect to Bihar’s chief minister, who has risen through democratic channels, the parable of Louis Bonaparte best captures Nitish Kumar’s meteoric rise.
For any observer of Indian politics, there is nothing more astonishing than Nitish Kumar’s ability to win elections with different political formations despite his recurrent flip-flops. Most of us believed that the 2020 elections had almost sealed Nitish’s fate, and his future looked bleak. All these apprehensions and predictions failed, and he is at the centre stage of things, yet again.
To succeed in India’s tumultuous democracy, a political leader must possess either of the two qualities. One, a solid support base which finds its affinities with the leader. Two, rhetorical style through which the leader is able to establish a direct connect with the populace. Nitish Kumar possesses neither of them.
In a state where the caste base plays an important role, Nitish Kumar’s core vote bank is minor if compared to his adversaries. His rhetorical skills stand nowhere in comparison to his counterparts, Lalu Prasad or even his son Tejashwi Yadav. His rallies are hardly a crowd puller, and he often fails to connect with the masses.
Unravelling the puzzle of Nitish Kumar’s continued sustenance in Bihar’s political landscape is important — because, despite the growing centrality of leadership in India’s democracy, academic work on the theme is scarce. The task is further complicated as Nitish Kumar hardly fits into the existing typologies of political leadership in India. To fill in this analytical gap, we identify three key elements of his leadership style that can be teased out from his way of functioning — managerial, perceptional, and technocratic.
The manager of myriad political contradictions
In a state where the Mandal and Kamandal binary is clearly demarcated, here is a leader who is not bound by this friend-enemy distinction. The reworking of his politics and creation of a new social base displays his managerial strength to build a coalition of the unlikely.
Nitish Kumar was one of the first politicians to exploit the internal tensions within the backward castes for electoral purposes, something that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gained mastery over in recent years. Using social policies to galvanise electoral support successfully has been the characteristic strategy upon which Kumar has thrived on. His hold on both the women voters and extreme backward classes (EBCs) is a clear illustration of such a tactic.
Sushasan Babu: The perception builder
Even though Bihar finds itself at the bottom of all developmental indices, Kumar is somehow able to retain his image of the Sushasan babu. The media management skills of Nitish Kumar at the regional level rivals that of the Narendra Modi government at the national level.
The presence of Harivansh Narayan Singh, the deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the ex-editor of one of the state’s most circulated dailies, Prabhat Khabar, is just one striking example of it. Kumar’s management of media narrative through having tight control over the allocation of government advertisements is another tactic that his government has often resorted to.
In addition, despite being in alliance with the BJP, he has been able to maintain his perception of being a champion of minorities. Moreover, in a state where the bases of sub-national identity have been historically weak and hardly evoked any emotive value, Kumar has been able to carve out a sense of Bihari identity and pride at the perceptional level.
Mastering the bureaucracy
If Lalu’s hegemony was marked by “state incapacity by design”, Nitish Kumar employs just the opposite tactics.
He does not rely on direct mass appeal but instead heavily on bureaucratic channels. In a state where politicians and bureaucrats were until recently at loggerheads, Kumar has somehow been able to work a way out to use bureaucracy as a flag-bearer of his developmental politics. This is also one of the reasons for his resonance in the Bihari middle class, a class which mostly comprises government servants in the state.
In addition, through maintaining a wall of silence and using his pawns to battle his political opponents, Nitish has the ability to frustrate his political opponents and critics.
The limits of Nitish’s politics
In an age marked with rampant populism, to sustain oneself with a managerial-technocratic style without charisma is itself an enigma that needs deeper analysis.
The interlocking of social forces in Bihar has resulted in an electoral maze where no single social group is able to establish its hegemony. Hence, one should not lose sight of the muddled theatre of Bihar politics, which creates an optimal condition for the rise of a technocratic-managerial leader like Nitish Kumar.
Now with talk resurfacing of his national ambition, his march to the box seat of national politics will crucially depend upon whether such a morphing of the political landscape takes place at the national level.
Nonetheless, Nitish Kumar espouses a very pragmatic brand of politics. One, which is not bound by ideological puritanism, yet at the same time is very attentive of maintaining a distinctive identity. If politics is about the art of the possible, Nitish Kumar is the epitome of such a possibility.
Supriy Ranjan and Pankaj Kumar are PhD candidates at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal