By Kartikeya Singh —
To observers of the political theater in India’s eastern state of Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s dramatic July 25 decision to trade his party’s alliance with the left-wing Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) for one with the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have seemed familiar. But given that Nitish broke with the BJP in the lead up to national elections in 2014 and fought hard to retain his control over the state in 2015 with a help of a grand alliance with the RJD, a U-turn so soon seemed impossible. For U.S. economic interests, the political change in Bihar is noteworthy. BJP–led or allied states won eight of the top ten slots in a 2016 ranking of business reforms by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion. If the third most populous state becomes more aligned with the vision of the Modi government, it may expedite its development and reform agenda, thereby opening the door for more partnerships with U.S. stakeholders.
Nitish Kumar’s intentions in aligning his party, the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), with the BJP may seem unclear but his track record for improving the state’s development outlook since his election in 2005 parallels the development agenda of the Modi-led central government. Indeed, Bihar’s growth rate was among India’s highest under the BJP – JD(U) alliance of 2005 to 2014. The compound annual growth rate of Bihar’s gross state domesticproduct (GSDP) from 2004-05 through 2013-14 was a remarkable 13.1 percent. As per the latest economic survey of the state, while the state’s revenue surplus is at an all-time high, the growth rate has decreased to 7.6 percent. Thus, to execute on ambitious plans to build out the state’s recently announced energy goals, modernizing the state’s agricultural sector through phase two of its “Rainbow Revolution,” or improve employment prospects for millions through manufacturing— the focus of Nitish Kumar’s next chapter for governance in Bihar– he would do well to partner with a central government which can support these efforts.
In exchange for supporting Bihar’s development agenda, Prime Minister Modi may find he has a stronger hand in pushing further legislative reforms through parliament. The JD(U)’s nine members in the Rajya Sabha – nearly four percent of the body’s total strength – continue to build the strength of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the upper chamber to eventually push forward their legislative agenda. In the Bihar legislative assembly, where the JD(U) holds fewer seats than the RJD (see graphic above), a tie-up with the BJP gives the JD(U) a majority and aligns it with a party more known for development than corruption. While some pundits might think Nitish’s move will hurt his party’s chance to pick up seats in the national parliament in the elections scheduled for 2019, history suggests that tying up with the BJP has largely boosted regional parties’ seats in the parliament (see table below). The JD(U) may see its share of seats in the Lok Sabha rise from the two it currently holds.
Table 1. This table shows how parties that have partnered with BJP in different states have benefited by winning additional seats in parliament. In Bihar, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) entered into an alliance with the BJP in 2014 while the JD(U) broke its alliance with the BJP in 2014. All other parties have consistently allied with the BJP in the years outlined. Note that TDP is the Telegu Desam Party.
While Chief Minister Kumar’s move has ruffled many feathers and jolted the opposition, his party and Bihar’s development agenda stand to benefit from aligning with the center. For Bihar, a state which needs all the help it can get, Nitish Kumar and the BJP have a relatively brief window to prove to the nation that partnering with the BJP is the right choice for development-focused chief ministers. With an eye towards the 2019 parliamentary elections, the BJP will need to demonstrate that it can work with state leaders to improve the lives of millions across one of India’s most impoverished states.
Dr. Kartikeya Singh is deputy director and senior fellow of the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS.