Nitish Kumar’s Quest: Will the ‘Kingmaker’ Secure Special Status for Bihar After 18 Years?

M.I. Khan,

Patna: After playing a pivotal role in supporting the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar now stands at a critical juncture to leverage this opportunity for the maximum benefit of his state, which grapples with poverty and backwardness.

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As the president of the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), Kumar sees the current moment as ideal to push for the long-standing demand of granting special category status to Bihar — a crucial step towards its development. For the 73-year-old leader, this presents a now-or-never opportunity to fulfill his long standing demand.

While several top JD-U leaders, known to be close to Kumar, have publicly reiterated their party’s commitment to securing special category status for Bihar, the chief minister himself has yet to directly address this issue since the formation of the NDA government at the Centre.

However, Kumar, known for his strategic timing in breaking his silence, is expected to formally press this demand sooner rather than later.

As a seasoned politician, Kumar recognizes that Modi relies on JD(U)’s support in his third term as prime minister to effectively govern and sustain his administration. In recent weeks, the chief minister has reminded Modi twice of his expectations for full support in Bihar’s development. In a recent post-ceremony statement, he congratulated Modi and expressed optimism about the country’s development under his leadership while emphasizing the need for Bihar to receive full assistance for its development.

This is the second occasion where Kumar has highlighted Bihar’s development agenda, with his earlier remarks at the NDA parliamentary party meeting in Delhi signaling a renewed focus on addressing the state’s pending projects. Seen as a direct message to Modi, Kumar’s statements underscore his determination to prioritize Bihar’s development agenda.

In the wake of the changed political landscape following the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the JD(U), despite a reduction in the number of MPs from 16 to 12, has emerged as a potent NDA ally in the Centre. All eyes are now on Kumar and his next steps. While the numerical strength of his party has diminished, his role as a “kingmaker” for Modi underscores his newfound influence in national politics.

At this crucial juncture, Nitish Kumar finds himself holding the key to realizing his demand for the special category status for Bihar, something he has vehemently championed for nearly 18 years. Widely regarded as the opportune moment, Kumar now has the leverage to compel Modi to translate this demand into reality, a move he deems essential for his state’s development.

Ironically, despite his persistent advocacy for the special category status, the issue was conspicuously absent from the ruling NDA’s election campaign for the recently concluded general elections. The chief minister remained notably silent on this crucial demand during the campaign — a departure from past elections where he refrained from raising the issue while contesting alongside the BJP since 2014.

In contrast, the Opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led INDIA alliance in the state consistently highlighted this demand to critique Modi’s failure to fulfill his decade-old promise to the people.

Kumar continued to advocate for the special category status until December 2023, just a month before rejoining the NDA fold in January 2024. During the 26th meeting of the Eastern Zonal Council chaired by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Patna, he reiterated the demand. In November 2023, the state Cabinet, under his leadership, passed a resolution urging the grant of special category status to the state. This resolution was bolstered by the Bihar Caste Survey Report released on October 2, 2023, which underscored the socio-economic challenges facing the state.

Highlighting the report’s findings, Kumar emphasized that approximately 34.13% (nearly 94 lakh) of families in Bihar live below the poverty line. To address their plight, Kumar’s government proposed launching schemes requiring a significant investment of nearly Rs 2.50 lakh crore over the next five years. However, he stressed the need for support from the central government to accomplish this ambitious task effectively.

According to the caste census report, these families endure severe poverty, with their monthly income averaging a mere Rs 6,000. Predominantly comprising Dalits, Adivasis (tribals), Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), these households face dire socio-economic conditions. The data reveals that 42.93% of Scheduled Caste (SC) and 42.70% of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) families are impoverished, alongside 33.16% of OBC and 33.58% of EBC families.

Notably, within the SCs, the Musahar community, one of India’s most marginalized in the caste hierarchy, experiences the highest poverty rate, with approximately 54% of them living below the poverty line. This is followed by 53% among Bhuiyans and 42% among Chamars or Mochis.

Kumar has reiterated that the demand for granting special category status to Bihar is not new but remains an ongoing issue. The demand persists as the state continues to require special assistance from the Centre for its development, much like it did over a decade ago and earlier.

Citing the NITI Aayog report on the multidimensional poverty index, senior JD-U leaders highlighted Bihar’s dismal ranking at the bottom in the country. In addition, indicators such as lower per capita income, subpar ease of living and human development below the national average further bolster the case for special category status.

In 2010, Kumar spearheaded a campaign advocating for special category status to his state, asserting it as the right of the people. Subsequently, his party, the JD-U, embarked on a mission to collect one crore signatures in support of the demand, ultimately submitting 1.25 crore signatures to then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2011. This culminated in the ‘Adhikar Yatra’ (Rights March) in 2012, followed by Adhikar rallies in Patna (2012) and Delhi (2013), all aimed at amplifying the demand for special category status.

Special status for the state has been a cornerstone of his party’s electoral campaigns, prominently featured in the 2009 general elections, the 2010 Assembly polls and the subsequent 2014 Lok Sabha and 2015 Assembly elections.

There was a time when Kumar accused Modi of betraying Bihar’s people, citing the PM’s promise of special status during the 2014 general elections campaign. At the Inter-State Council meeting in Delhi in July 2016, he reiterated his stance, asserting that the Government of India should grant special category status to Bihar to address its backwardness comprehensively.

In the last Lok Sabha polls, JD(U) leaders pledged to Bihar voters that if the party secured at least 15 Lok Sabha seats, it would pursue special category status for the state. Despite winning 16 of the 17 seats it contested, Kumar was unable to secure the status, despite being part of the BJP-led NDA both in Bihar as well as the Centre.

After he parted ways with the BJP in 2013, senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi campaigned on the promise of the special status to the state if Narendra Modi became prime minister in March 2014. BJP leaders asserted that only Modi could fulfill this demand.

In 2022, Kumar announced that all backward states would be granted special status if non-BJP parties formed the government at the Centre in 2024, underscoring his commitment to this cause.

However, the big question now is whether he will secure Modi’s guarantee for the special status.

Political observers suggest that if Kumar can compel Modi to grant special category status to Bihar, it would be a significant development for the state’s progress and his personal legacy, given his persistent advocacy since 2006.

While during the election campaign, senior BJP leader and then Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman explicitly ruled out such a possibility for Bihar, the post-election scenario suggests that Modi will need to appease Kumar to maintain his government. Thus far, the Modi-led NDA government has overlooked Kumar’s demand and consistently denied granting special status to Bihar.

Local reports indicate overwhelming support across the state for the JD(U) to pursue the demand. Many believe that Kumar should assertively advocate for his demand, leveraging his political capital for Bihar’s benefit.

Even Opposition parties, including the RJD, the Congress and the Left endorse Kumar’s demand for Bihar’s development.