Rotten Borough

Nitish Kumar’s village reveals the limits of his social coalition

Nitish Kumar receives petitions from residents of Kalyan Bigha during a visit to his village, on 29 November 2022. SANTOSH KUMAR / HINDUSTAN TIMES / GETTY IMAGES
Elections 2024
29 April, 2024

“If someone rents out their farmland to me today, I will belong to him,” Arun Kumar Singh said. “They might think I’m their man, but I will always be who I am inside.” Singh, a sharecropper in his late fifties, who lives a few metres away from the paternal home of Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, was trying to explain his neighbour’s recent political acrobatics. On 28 January, Nitish was sworn in as chief minister for a record ninth time, with a total tenure of less than two decades, having once again deserted the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal to rejoin the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. In Singh’s metaphor, Nitish might be loyal to his current landlord—whichever of the other three major political parties in the state, all of which are bigger than his Janata Dal (United), he is aligned with at the time—but his true allegiance was to himself. What mattered more to Singh than Nitish’s infidelity was that the district administration had installed three transformers in the area, allowing him to operate an electric thresher for free.

It is not just the material benefits Singh has received over the years from the various Nitish Kumar governments that has made him a perennial JD(U) voter. Like Nitish, he is an Awadhiya Kurmi, one of the most well-off jatis among the state’s Other Backward Classes. “A Kurmi has principles,” Singh told me, adding that a government headed by a Kurmi should be assumed to be fair to everyone. If Nitish shared power with the RJD, he said, Yadavs would regain control over the state apparatus. Singh distinguished between the RJD patriarch, Lalu Prasad Yadav, whom he called a “lathi swinger”—a casteist slur, referencing the Yadavs’ traditional occupation of cattle-rearing—and Nitish the “peacemaker.”

Awadhiya Kurmis are the dominant caste in Nitish’s village of Kalyan Bigha. Most of them are significant landowners, with holdings generally between two and ten hectares. Like other villages in Bihar, it is divided into caste enclaves, inhabited by Scheduled Castes such as Musahars, Paswans and Pasis; Extremely Backward Classes such as Kahars, Kandus and Nais; Yadavs and Kurmis, the dominant OBCs; and a few Brahmins. I walked through all the enclaves, and a couple of the nearby villages, to talk to residents. All of them told me that they had been voting for Nitish’s parties ever since he first won the Harnaut assembly seat, in 1985. Kurmis and Yadavs were sympathetic to the chief minister’s frequent defections, arguing that his coalition partners had never let him work properly, while EBCs and SCs were willing to be loyal to the JD(U) as long as the dominant castes loosened social restrictions and allowed constitutional benefits to reach them.

Kalyan Bigha is part of the Barah village panchayat, part of Nalanda district’s Harnaut block. In the 2020 assembly election, the JD(U) won five of the seven assembly seats that make up the Nalanda Lok Sabha constituency, which has been held by the Samata Party and the JD(U)—both of which Nitish co-founded—since 1996. The member of parliament since 2009, Kaushalendra Kumar, is defending a margin of over a quarter million votes against Sandeep Saurav, a state legislator from the Communist Party of India (Marxist–Leninist) (Liberation).