Winning elections in India may not always have much to do with a government’s performance. A bad government often loses elections, but sometimes so does a good one. Few would dispute the fact that Nitish Kumar’s regime in Bihar had done the once-blighted state a lot of good. During his rule of eight and a half years, Bihar became a much safer place than it had been for the previous 20-odd years. The state’s economy, in tatters for decades, started looking up. Bloody caste riots, once common occurrences in Bihar, were increasingly becoming unhappy memories. Yet, the man who made this turnaround possible became a big loser in the just-concluded parliamentary polls. His party managed to win only two of the 40 seats in the state. Mr Kumar has owned responsibility for the defeat and resigned as the chief minister. He fell, like many others, to the saffron charge led by Narendra Modi. There were other leaders — Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and J. Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu — who saved their forts from the saffron offensive. Mr Kumar’s failure to do so shows that he hugely overestimated his party’s strength and his own appeal when he severed his party’s alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party last year. Clearly, his gamble on breaking his party’s ties with the BJP did not pay off.
However, Mr Kumar seems to want his reign to continue in another form. Having got his party’s approval to choose a successor, he has nominated someone who is expected to act as his master’s voice. The new chief minister, Jitan Ram Manjhi, has been with different political parties and served in several ministries in Bihar for over two decades. But the choice of him as Mr Kumar’s successor is unrelated to his credentials or past records as minister. The Janata Dal (United) has made no secret of the fact that Mr Kumar will still call the shots in the party and the government. He will also lead the party’s campaign for the assembly elections next year. Whether this strategy is good enough to hold the party together is rather uncertain, especially because the JD(U) has a wafer-thin majority in the assembly. But the BJP would only harm its image if it engages in the proverbial “horse-trading” in its anxiety to topple the government in Patna. Another spell of political chaos could doom Bihar’s aspirations for change.