Mr Clean's tie-up with graft-tainted politician wipes out BJP in Bihar polls

Mr Nitish Kumar (left, in white), leader of Janata Dal (United), and Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav (beside him), chief of Rashtriya Janata Dal, after their alliance won 178 out of 243 seats in the Bihar state assembly elections. Many attributed their win to t
Mr Nitish Kumar (left, in white), leader of Janata Dal (United), and Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav (beside him), chief of Rashtriya Janata Dal, after their alliance won 178 out of 243 seats in the Bihar state assembly elections. Many attributed their win to the caste combination stitched up by the alliance that saw the consolidation of votes from the lower castes and Muslims.PHOTO: REUTERS

In August, when Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, known as "Mr Clean", announced an electoral tie-up with Mr Lalu Prasad Yadav, a politician convicted of corruption, many thought the 64-year-old had lost his political touch.

Three months later, as Mr Kumar, leader of political party Janata Dal (United), gets ready to be sworn in as chief minister for the third time on Nov 20, that decision has turned out to be a political masterstroke.

The grand alliance of the Janata Dal (United) , Mr Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress won 178 out of 243 seats in the state assembly elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just 58 seats.

Many attributed the win to the caste combination stitched up by the alliance that saw the consolidation of votes from the lower castes and Muslims.

However, without Mr Kumar and his proven record in governance, this alliance, many said, would not have pulled off the massive victory against Mr Modi.

"He is the most dynamic leader of the Hindi heartland. In election campaigns, he mobilised the masses on the question of social issues like illiteracy and child mortality," said Dr Shaibal Gupta of Bihar's Asian Development Research Institute.

Mr Kumar, the son of a freedom fighter against British rule, is an engineer by profession, who won his first election in 1985 to the state assembly. He emerged as the face of the Kurmis, a land-owning, backward caste that forms over 3 per cent of Bihar's population.

A six-time MP and two-time state legislator, he has been Bihar's chief minister since 2005.

Over the last decade, he changed the fortunes of one of India's poorest states, where criminal activity was so high that the well-heeled travelled with armed security and declined dinner invitations, fearful of getting kidnapped along the way.

Mr Kumar cracked down on criminal gangs, improved infrastructure by building roads and rolled out education and healthcare facilities.

He walked the talk on gender empowerment, giving money to female students in Class 9 (the equivalent of Secondary 3) to buy bicycles so they would stay in school, and reserving 50 per cent of seats in village councils for women.

Bihar's economy grew at around 11 per cent between 2004 and 2009, compared with the 3 per cent in the preceding five years.

His alliance with the BJP, which dates back to 1996, ran its course in 2013 when Mr Modi - who headed Gujarat state during the 2002 Hindu Muslim riots there - became BJP's prime ministerial candidate.

Fearful of losing his Muslim supporters, Mr Kumar broke ties with the BJP, but his party performed poorly in the general election a year later, winning only two out of 40 seats contested. Dispirited, the teetotaller stepped down as chief minister and installed a loyalist in his place, but returned 10 months later as chief minister.

Now, as he gets on with the job of governing the state, many are watching to see how the alliance with Mr Yadav works out, and whether Mr Kumar will play a key role in an ongoing effort to unite opposition parties, energised after the BJP's electoral drubbing.

Speaking to reporters after his win, Mr Kumar said: "People want a strong opposition in a democracy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2015, with the headline 'Mr Clean's tie-up with graft-tainted politician wipes out BJP in Bihar polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe