Nitish Kumar: What If The Veteran NDA Ally Had Gone With The INDIA Bloc?

Nitish Kumar's strategic moves and shifting alliances have brought him back into national prominence, positioning him as a key player in the 2024 Indian political landscape

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A hoarding of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with slogan 'Tiger Zinda Hai' Photo: Getty Images

Ramachandra Guha wrote back in 2017 that the Congress was a party without a leader and Nitish Kumar a leader without a party, and if the two were to unite, the country would find a viable political alternative.

For the time being, let us turn our attention to Bihar. In the 2024 general elections, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) bagged 30 of the state’s 40 Lok Sabha seats. The remaining 10 seats went to the rival Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). With a vote share of 46 per cent, the NDA secured 10 per cent more votes than the INDIA bloc, which received only 36 per cent of the votes cast. However, relative to the previous general elections, there was a drop in the vote percentages of all the NDA parties and their total number of seats decreased by nine.

Had Nitish Kumar remained with the INDIA, the alliance's vote percentage could have crossed 55 per cent (with the addition of the JDU’s 18.52 per cent). This in turn would have resulted in the NDA winning far fewer seats, thereby weakening Narendra Modi’s third-time bid for prime ministership.

As far as Nitish Kumar is concerned, either scenario would have left him with a good amount of political leverage. Kumar has long been regarded as PM material. As long as he was with the INDIA, there was a possibility that he would take the top post. All that changed on January 28, when he left the then-ally Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and joined hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), effectively putting his seal of approval on Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate.

But the results of the general elections on June 4 would bring Kumar back into the thick of national politics. From being the king of power in Bihar, he was now a kingmaker at the centre. Although his party, the Janata Dal (United) (JDU), was in a pre-poll alliance with the BJP, he began to receive offers from the INDIA bloc. Later, the JDU made it known through a statement that it was a part of the NDA and would remain so in the future. Kumar attended the NDA meets held in Delhi on June 5 and June 7, where he and his party extended their support to Modi as he was elected the leader of the NDA parliamentary party.

Why is Nitish Kumar in the news?

In terms of seats won, the JDU trails several parties, yet its national president and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has dominated post-election news. This is because the election results, which flew in the face of the predictions made by the exit polls, placed his party a prominent third in the NDA’s MP tally, right behind the BJP and Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

With the BJP failing to win even a simple majority on its own, the NDA has reached the figure of 293 chiefly with the addition of the TDP’s 16 MPs and the JDU’s 12 MPs. The INDIA bloc has made repeated attempts to bring these two parties over to its side. On social media, there are memes and reels galore mocking Kumar as a “Paltu Ram” (turncoat) who can make another switch any time.

But would Kumar actually change sides and rejoin the INDIA? DM Diwakar, former director of the NN Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna, believes that in politics, not just Kumar, but more or less any political party can be expected to switch allegiance to further its interests. But he adds, “At present, it does not seem likely. The INDIA bloc cannot form a government even with the support of Kumar and Naidu. It will be difficult for them to gather the numbers for a majority [INDIA = 234, TDP + JDU = 28). I believe that the discussion should be on what would have happened if Nitish Kumar had stayed with the INDIA. If he had been a part of the united front put up by the bloc during these elections, the entire equation of power in Delhi could have changed.”

He further says, “The INDIA put up a strong fight and made substantial gains. But this exercise in unity was begun by Nitish Kumar. He held meetings in Bengal, Delhi and the south to unite the people. He met Mamata, Kejriwal, Chandrababu Naidu, and other leaders and brought them together. If Nitish Kumar had stayed this course, Bihar could have changed the equation in Delhi. His visits to the various states and his effort to mobilise people was instrumental in turning opinions against the BJP in the entire country, but particularly in the Hindi belt.”

Diwakar believes that Kumar’s presence would have improved the INDIA tally in Uttar Pradesh as well, because the Rashtriya Lok Dal would not have deserted the alliance in that eventuality.

An RJD-JDU alliance

Looking at the results of the general elections, political analysts are of the view that if the RJD, the JDU, and the Congress had contested the Bihar elections as allies, they could have inflicted huge losses on the BJP. The RJD and the JDU are regarded as major players in Bihar politics, and an alliance between them has the power to influence national politics.

Although the two parties have never contested the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar as allies, when they came together for the first time in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, they succeeded in halting the Modi wave that was sweeping across the country. The RJD, the JDU and the Congress contested the elections together and registered a historic victory. Their Grand Alliance secured 41.9 per cent votes and captured 178 of the 243 assembly seats, with the RJD winning 80, the JDU 71, and the Congress 27 seats. These elections witnessed a relatively high voter turnout at 56,8 per cent, the highest in the state since 2000.


When the JDU contested the 2020 Bihar assembly elections as an NDA constituent, it suffered a loss of both votes and seats. Its seat tally was reduced to 43. On the other hand, the BJP improved its performance, going from 53 seats in 2015 to 74 seats in 2020. The NDA won 125 seats with 37 per cent votes. It could barely reach the majority mark. The figures from the two elections, placed side by side, suggest that the JDU fared better with the RJD as a partner, in terms of both its vote share and the number of seats won.


The Lok Sabha poll figures in Bihar

In the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the NDA suffered the least amount of loss in Bihar compared to the other states. In 2019, when the BJP fought the elections with the JDU, the NDA won 39 out of the 40 seats. The results of the 2024 elections show that the BJP was facing a 10-year anti-incumbency across the country. If, despite this, the NDA managed to win 30 seats in Bihar, it was in great measure owing to Nitish Kumar and his social engineering.

On the other hand, the RJD in 2019 got 15.7 per cent votes without winning any seats. This time, the party won four seats and its vote share increased by 6.7 per cent to 22.14 per cent. The 2024 elections saw the vote percentages of all the INDIA-bloc parties increase, while the percentages of the NDA constituents decreased.


The victory margins of the NDA seats have also decreased. In 2019, there were 25 seats on which the NDA won by a margin of more than two lakhs – the margin was greater than three lakhs on 13 of those seats. By contrast, this time, the margin is less than one lakh on 12 seats. In fact. On many of these seats, the difference is less than 50 thousand.

Looking at the election figures, senior journalist Suroor Ahmed opines that if Nitish had been with the INDIA, the numbers in Bihar could have been very different and the INDIA could have fared much better. He tells Outlook, "Even today, the BJP carries the image of an upper-caste party in Bihar and UP. Tejashwi Yadav and Nitish are tall leaders of the backward castes, with a firm hold on these castes. If they had contested the polls as allies, both the parties would have benefitted from the transfer of each other's votes and there would have been no split in the votes of the backward castes. And this would have increased the seat tallies of both the parties."


Without Nitish, the BJP is out of power

Nitish Kumar is counted as one of the socialist leaders of the country. In 1994, he broke away from the Janata Dal and formed the Samata Party along with George Fernandes. He contested the 1996 and 1998 Lok Sabha elections with the BJP. During this period, he was a Union minister in the BJP-led government. In 2000, he became the Chief Minister of Bihar with the support of the BJP, but unable to prove his majority, he had to resign within seven days. However, he remained a minister at the centre during this time. 


In 2003, the Samata Party merged with the JDU, and in 2005, the BJP and the JDU formed a government in Bihar, with Kumar as the Chief Minister. The NDA government continued for eight years under Kumar's leadership. But in September 2013, after Modi was declared the PM candidate, Kumar severed his 17-year-old relationship with the NDA. His party contested the 2014 elections alone.

Hereon, Kumar took several U-turns in Bihar's politics. In 2015, he formed the government with his long-time rival Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD. Back then, he had said that he would rather be reduced to dust than join hands with the BJP. But in 2017, he parted ways with the RJD to ally with the BJP. Then in 2020, he contested elections in partnership with the BJP, and two years later in 2022, he switched sides again, and allied with the RJD. After running a coalition government for 17 months, he changed sides again in January this year to form a government with the BJP.


Amidst these multiple acts of switching allegiance, Kumar had also said at one point that he would never go back to the BJP. The then Home Minister Amit Shah had replied that the doors of that NDA had closed for ever for Kumar.

It is also true that their denunciatory statements on Kumar notwithstanding, the BJP and the RJD have never hesitated to ally with him again.

Kumar's vote share and seats may have seen a fall in these past 10 years, but his political stature remains tall. Through all kinds of political ups and downs, he has managed to retain power in Bihar in the last 20 years. Even when he had only 41 seats, he did not let the Chief Minister's office slip out of his hands.


It has been 18 years since the BJP first shared power with Kumar in the state. In all this time, no leadership of note has emerged in the BJP, nor has the party managed to diminish the stature of Kumar in any way.

A Paltu Ram or a Chanakya

For his ability to stay in power by making U-turns and allying with different parties, Kumar has been called at times Paltu Ram and Chanakya. But senior journalist Manikant Thakur considers Kumar to be a shrewd opportunist. He tells Outlook, “Nitish Kumar is a shrewd leader. He keeps changing sides very cleverly to retain his grip on power. His shrewdness has always worked with the BJP because he has made the BJP a stooge in Bihar politics. Since the time of Sushil Kumar Modi, the BJP's status has always been low under Nitish Kumar's rule. He kept becoming the Chief Minister even with few seats, because the RJD and the Congress kept supporting him to keep the BJP away from power, and the BJP did the same to keep the RJD and the Congress away.”


Diwakar, on the other hand, considers Kumar to be a very suitable leader for Bihar. He says, “Only those who have taken a beating from him call him Paltu Ram. There is no place for principles in contemporary politics. The BJP cannot sustain itself in Bihar without Nitish Kumar, and he is not an untouchable for the INDIA bloc either. But the BJP grasped the importance of Nitish Kumar in these elections far better than the Congress did. This is the reason it did not suffer the same loss in Bihar as it did in other states. The BJP wants Nitish to be with them in any case, because the bulwark of secular votes cannot be breached without Nitish.”


According to Diwakar, Kumar knows how to remain in power and how to keep himself relevant in politics. He believes that apart from everything else, Kumar is a good fit for both the alliances in many ways. He says, “Whatever may be said in the political corridors, but in the public sphere, Nitish is counted apart from corrupt leaders. Nitish Kumar remains relevant also due to his liberal and good-governance image.”

Paltu Ram, shrewd, Chanakya – whatever role Kumar plays, he has never backed down from the demand for a special package for Bihar. Whenever he changed sides, he always said that he did so in the interest of Bihar. Not surprisingly, on June 7, when Modi was elected the leader of the NDA parliamentary party, Kumar did not forget to demand a special package in his speech. There had been some speculation before the elections over the JDU breaking up and disintegrating. In his role as a kingmaker, Kumar has also put an end to all such conjecture.


(Translated by Kaushika Draavid)