Nitish Nalanda
As Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar has completed several development projects in Nalanda. File photo shows him inspecting a nature safari n Nalanda district. Image: X/ANI

Bihar | Why stronghold Nalanda poses litmus test for Nitish this time

Nitish Kumar is battling poor health and widespread criticism for switching sides too frequently; also, rival CPI-ML is putting up a tough fight

People in the Nalanda Lok Sabha constituency pitched him for the Prime Minister's post about a year ago when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar started mobilising Opposition parties to fight the BJP in the 2024 elections.

His protégé and three-term Nalanda MP Kaushalendra Kumar offered to vacate his seat for Nitish Kumar, so that the latter could contest parliamentary elections from there and migrate to national politics.

Today, the ground reality is vastly different in the Nalanda Lok Sabha constituency, which goes to vote on June 1, under the seventh and final phase of elections. The results will be announced on June 4.

Nalanda is also the Assembly seat of Nitish Kumar.

Change of alliance

A big change from the situation last year is that Nitish has taken his party Janata Dal (United), or JDU, back into the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The switchover happened just before the elections, and has not gone down well with a section of voters.

The CPI-ML, a member of the INDIA bloc, is taking on the Janata Dal (United) in a straight – and hard-fought – contest there.

The famous Luv-Kush (Kurmi-Koeri) caste combination assiduously nursed by Nitish has gone for a toss in many constituencies this time. The INDIA bloc has countered the strategy by fielding many candidates of the Koeri (also called Kushwaha) caste.

The Nalanda battle is now a litmus test not only for Nitish Kumar but also for the NDA.

Nitish and Nalanda

Nalanda has been an impregnable fort for Nitish Kumar since 1996, when he offered this seat to his mentor George Fernandes.

Fernandes won it thrice in a row: 1996, 1998 and 1999. In 2004, Nitish himself contested this seat in addition to Barh when differences cropped up with George Fernandes, who was shifted to Muzaffarpur. Nitish won from Nalanda but lost in Barh.

Due to the 'prestige' value, Nitish himself takes control of election management in Nalanda, no matter which candidate is fielded by the JD(U).

The JD(U) nominee Kaushalendra Kumar won in 2009 comfortably but he could win in 2014 by just 9,627 votes due to division of opposition votes. In 2019, he won again, owing to a weak candidate from the opposition Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM).

Caste equations

The Nalanda parliamentary constituency has a numerical preponderance of Kurmis – over six lakh – followed by Yadavs and other castes out of over 22 lakh voters spread across seven Assembly segments.

Kurmis constitute 28 per cent of the voters, followed by Yadavs (17 per cent) and Muslims (12 per cent), besides Kushwahas (10 per cent) and a significant number of Dalits and Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs).

In the 2020 Assembly election, the JD(U) won five of the seven Assembly segments of Nalanda, while the BJP and RJD secured one seat each.

As Chief Minister, Nitish has completed a number of development projects including highways, educational institutions, tourist hubs and other infrastructure projects, which stands him in good stead electorally.

CPI-ML challenge

A businessman-cum-philanthropist, Binay Kumar, said the development projects ought to secure the Nalanda seat for the JD(U). The dominance of Kurmis as the single-largest caste should also help. "Moreover, Nitish Kumar is the only big leader of the Kurmis in Bihar. So, it will be game for him," he told The Federal.

However, this seat has become vulnerable due to the presence of the CPI-ML in the fight.

Kaushalendra Kumar, the outgoing JD(U) MP, faces a tough challenge from the CPI-ML’s Sandip Sourabh, currently an MLA from a neighbouring Assembly seat and an alumnus of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Sourabh is a Yadav and has substantial support among his caste members besides the cadre votes of the CPI-ML.

The Nalanda constituency was a Left bastion in the 1980s. The CPI’s Vijay Kumar Yadav won in 1980, 1984 and 1991. If the CPI-ML succeeds is mobilising the anti-Kurmi and anti-NDA votes besides its cadre base, it will be difficult for the JD(U) to retain the seat.

The Left front is hoping to ride on anti-incumbency votes.

Kurmis vs Yadavs

Making the Nalanda battle tougher is the rivalry between the Kurmis and the Yadavs. Since RJD leader Lalu Prasad, a Yadav, became the Chief Minister, the two castes have fought for power.

The Kurmis, led by Nitish Kumar, along with other EBCs, were the first to openly resent the Yadav dominance. The shift of the power centre irked them, since they were allegedly driven out of contracts and other benefits at the administrative level.

The rivalry can, in fact, be traced back to pre-Independence days, when the Kurmis, Koeris and Yadavs fought over social and political dominance.

However, Shivpujan Singh, Chaudhari Yadunandan Prasad Mehta and Sardar Jagdeo Singh Yadav – a Kurmi, a Koeri and a Yadav respectively – formed the Triveni Sangh (Association of Three Castes) in 1933. The Triveni Sangh became a formidable force against the upper castes.

Long-standing rivalry

Their unity, barring some upheavals during the Naxalite movement, continued till Nitish parted ways with Lalu Prasad to form the Samata Party in 1994. Their row was over the dominance of Yadavs in both the administration and legislature.

Subsequently, Nitish and Lalu have joined hands twice, in 2014 and 2017, but the rivalry between the castes has continued unabated.

"The Kurmis do not vote for any Yadav candidate. Similarly, the Yadavs do not vote for any Kurmi candidate," said Ajay Patel of Islampur.

Amid reports that the caste factor became the core consideration of the voters in the first five phases of Lok Sabha polls in Bihar, both the NDA and INDIA alliances are struggling to retain their traditional vote banks.

Flexing muscles

Nitish has built his base among the EBCs and Mahadalits (a group of most backward among SCs). To slice this vote bank, the INDIA bloc has focused on the EBCs including Kahars or Chandravanshis (palanquin bearers) and Mallahs (fishermen community), who are in substantial numbers in Nalanda.

It has already roped in Mukesh Sahani, the leader of the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), with an eye on Mallah votes.

Although the Kurmis of Nalanda are solidly behind Nitish, the poor treatment allegedly meted out during polling to Anita Kumari, the RJD candidate from the neighbouring Munger Lok Sabha constituency, is bound to have repercussions in Nalanda. Anita is the wife of Ashok Mahato, a Kurmi gangster who enjoys the support of his community.

Prestige battle

Nitish Kumar is battling poor health and widespread criticism for switching sides too frequently. He therefore faces an uphill task in retaining his vote bank, particularly since his indispensability has been eroded in recent years.

The lack of a second-line Kurmi leadership after Nitish poses a major challenge for the JD(U) in coming days.

No wonder, the stakes are high for Nitish Kumar in Nalanda this time round.
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