Nitish Kumar, An Un-Interrupted Leader

Despite the many flip-flops, Nitish Kumar has been an influential leader. He, however, has not been able to build a second-tier leadership, something that may impact his party whenever he calls it quits

File Photo
One man, many roles: Nitish Kumar with Lalu Yadav and Sushil Modi File Photo

In recent times, states have emerged as arenas where politics has unfolded in varying forms within the federal polity of India. Also, states have increasingly become important political units. Political developments at the state level impact national politics.

Both these factors have prompted analysts to call states “mini democracies”. Heightened attention on state politics brings focus on state-level leaders as well. Also, the fact, that when in power, state leaders have access to massive political resources, organisation, money and votes. Consider the size of the territory and the population of some of the states.

Studying the life and times of a state-level leader can be helpful in many aspects. First, it helps in understanding the political and economic changes and developments during their career, especially if the leader has been in a position of power and influence for a considerable period. Second, profiling the leadership helps in analysing the social composition of the political elite and also discerning the shift, if any, in the nature of political representation at the state level. Third, given the fluid and weakly institutionalised nature of state parties, leadership study also helps in understanding the process of party formation, policy agenda and symbolism. Fourth, focusing on the political career of a successful political leader and his leadership style/model not only captures and explains the way his political life has shaped up but also brings into focus the shifting political and economic realities of the state during his time and space.

Nitish Kumar with Ram Vilas Paswan Photo: Getty Images

Political Career: A Brief Sketch

A study of the political life of Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar since 2005, except for a few months when he nominated Jitan Ram Manjhi in his place, is helpful in these aspects.

A powerful state-level leader who has national recognition, Kumar has had an abiding presence in state politics since the late seventies when he participated in the sampoorna kranti movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan along with other Patna University student leaders like Lalu Yadav, Sushil Modi, and Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Between them, Lalu Yadav and Kumar, both belonging to upper backward agricultural castes, have ruled Bihar for the last thirty-four years, more so in the case of the former. The rise of both leaders, who were inspired by socialist leaders Ram Manohar Lohia and Karpoori Thakur coincided with the emergence of Mandal politics.

Nitish Kumar with Prime Minister Narendra Modi Photo: PTI

Bihar, like other Hindi-speaking states of north India, witnessed the consolidation and assertion of the backward castes in the wake of Mandal, a process that had already been initiated in the state when Karpoori Thakur, as the state chief minister, introduced caste-based quotas in 1978.

The two leaders were initially in the Janata Party and then joined the Janata Dal, which was led by V P Singh. Kumar, who was initially considered a close advisor to Lalu Yadav and became the chief minister in 1990, soon fell out with him.

Kumar, along with George Fernandes, left the Janata Dal, formed the Samata Party in 1994 and joined the BJP-led NDA in the 1996 General Election. Lalu Yadav, too, formed the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in 1997 after foisting his apolitical wife on the state as the chief minister when forced to resign on corruption charges in a fodder case.

Later, Kumar got the Samata Party merged with the Sharad Yadav-led Janata Dal faction and the Ram Vilas Paswan-led Lok Shakti Party. The new party was called Janata Dal (United), led by Fernandes in 2003. Very soon, the JD (U) came to be controlled by Kumar, as both Paswan and Sharad Yadav parted ways in due course.

Nitish Kumar with Sonia Gandhi Photo: Getty Images

Lalu Yadav and Kumar, both unchallenged leaders of their respective parties, have come together twice again in recent times to share power, both times at the initiative of the latter.

Kumar left the NDA alliance in 2013 and contested the 2014 parliamentary election, banking on his personal popularity as was visible in the 2010 Assembly elections. His party got merely two seats. Realising the critical need to stitch alliances and not venturing out alone, in the 2015 Assembly election, the JD (U), the RJD and the Congress, along with the other smaller parties, contested as alliance partners. The alliance called Mahagathbandhan, however, broke in 2017 as Kumar went back to the BJP. The second time the two leaders came together was in 2022 when the RJD-JD (U) government was formed.

In 2024, Kumar made a somersault and went back, once again, to the BJP. While Lalu Yadav has remained steadfast in his opposition to the BJP and has been part of the Congress-led UPA (now INDIA) since the alliance formation, Kumar has switched his partners at his convenience.

As the JD(U) wins twelve seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, it is just another illustration that the alliances have always helped Kumar and his party more than the BJP or the RJD. The 2022 elections were an exception as the Lok Janshakti Party rebel faction, led by Chirag Paswan, put up candidates against the JD(U), inflicting damage to it, reportedly as part of the BJP strategy to weaken its alliance partner. Chirag did not put up candidates against the BJP. 

The Importance of being Nitish Kumar

Kumar switching sides but remaining acceptable to both the RJD and the BJP shows his importance as a leader. Despite having fewer seats in the legislative assembly than both the BJP and the RJD after the 2022 Assembly elections, he has remained the chief minister in all the coalition governments his party has been part of. The simple explanation is that either the RJD-Congress alliance or the BJP in alliance with the smaller parties do not fancy their chances of winning an election on their own and so have always been willing to go with him, whenever he calls.


The caste-ridden politics of the state, which results in the fragmentation of votes in a multi-party contest, underlines the importance of the “Nitish Kumar factor”. The BJP is handicapped by having only upper castes as its core social constituency, but upper castes are merely 12 per cent of the state’s population, as per the 2024 caste survey report, and then there are internal differences in the areas where they compete, like in eastern Bihar.

Kumar, who comes from a numerically small Kurmi caste, as the chief minister, sought to broaden his support base among the non-Yadav backward castes and the Scheduled Castes, including the most deprived ones. Taking a leaf from Thakur, he did it by introducing separate quotas for jobs for the most backward castes among the backward and Scheduled Castes. His steadfast refusal to take a communal line has also given him a secular image and earned him significant Muslim support. This is despite him being in the BJP-led NDA government as a minister or forming the long-term coalition government in alliance with the BJP.


This is how he checkmated Lalu Yadav, who belongs to the numerically significant Yadav community, and who, very early in his career, stitched a formidable Muslim-Yadav combination as his personalised social support base. This has continued till the day, irrespective of his party membership.

What brings the upper castes’ support, in addition to Kumar’s own social constituency of Kumar, is his widely publicised and accepted image as an able administrator (vikas purush). For long, he has been widely credited for bringing about a turnaround in a state that was almost given up not so long ago as a ‘failed state’ when Lalu Yadav was in power.


As a state leader, he has been credited with invoking a sense of regional pride and resurrecting the image of a changing Bihar, much appreciated especially by the people of the state working all over India, given the much-maligned image the state and its people got during the RJD regime. Bihar was then considered India’s “cesspool” with its abject poverty, caste wars, messy politics, corruption and lawlessness.

Looking Ahead

What lies in the future for Kumar, who is in his seventies, and is apparently in frail health? Has he been able to bring a turnaround in the plight of the state? Has he retained his ability to run the administration with an iron hand? Does his position as undisputed leader of the coalition government remain intact, like in earlier cases? Would he continue to have Muslim support, given his association with the BJP? The answers to all these questions seem to be negative.


Bihar remains one of the most underdeveloped states in India, with no hope of bringing investment. Despite the repeated demands by Kumar to declare Bihar a special category state, the Centre has not moved. Of late, the law-and-order situation has also worsened, and the administration has slackened.

Nitish Kumar, as of now, is seen as a compromised leader, pandering to the BJP’s top leadership to remain in power rather than asking for central grants to help the state.

With the emergence of Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan, two young leaders from numerically strong communities and political families and the love-hate relationship Kumar has shared with the Modi-led BJP, there is all the possibility that he may be pushed to the margins in the near future. He has had strained relations with many leaders from the BJP and other party leaders who are now in his coalition government or in the NDA.


Mention may be made of Samrat Choudhary, the deputy chief minister; Jitan Ram Manjhi, the HAM leader, and Upendra Kushwaha, the RLSP leader. All these leaders belong to the castes (Koeri and Mushar, respectively) that traditionally supported Kumar in central Bihar.

As of now, JD(U)’s crucial support for the NDA has ensured Kumar’s continuation as the chief minister. However, his political survival would very much depend on the 2025 Assembly election results.

Apart from his advancing age, which shows in his erratic public appearances/utterances, what is not going to help Kumar is his person-centred leadership, which has meant that he has not been able to build an effective party organisation or second-tier leadership. The JD(U), like the BJD in Odisha, is likely to flounder once Kumar calls it a day. Never a charismatic leader like Lalu Yadav who practiced caste-based populist politics, Kumar was always seen as a developmental leader with sound administrative acumen, whose calling card was to build infrastructure, provide electricity and drinking water to the villages and bring in government projects to create employment opportunities.


With the central government taking all these initiatives and also the credit and Bihar not receiving the Centre’s support, Kumar’s aura has certainly diminished. Even Tejashwi Yadav is taking credit for employment generation during his 18-month stint as deputy chief minister. 

Another potential leader is Prashant Kishor, who under the banner of the Jan Suraaj has been doing padyatra across the state, reminding everyone of the failures of Kumar to make a decisive turnaround in the fate of the state, which remains afflicted with both low income and human poverty.

Kumar, as of now, is seen as a compromised leader, pandering to the BJP’s top leadership to remain in power rather than asking for central grants or projects to help the state. A leader who resigned as a railway minister after an accident, and who has always had his way despite heading a coalition government, Kumar appears as a poor caricature of himself. But then, every leader has an expiry date. The issue is, does Bihar have an alternative leader who can enjoy statewide support across castes and regions?


(Views expressed are personal)

(This appeared in the print as 'Nitish, Un-Interrupted')

Ashutosh Kumar is professor of Indian politics at Panjab University, Chandigarh