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Will Nitish Remain His Own Man or Play Second Fiddle to His New Peers?

The biggest casualty in the whole fiasco has been the sanctity of the voters’ mandate.

Can we afford to rely on leaders and parties with a wind vane of a “conscience” that decides whether to turn towards or away from the “secular” agenda depending on where the winds are favourable? Credit: PTI

Can we afford to rely on leaders and parties with a wind vane of a “conscience” that decides whether to turn towards or away from the “secular” agenda depending on where the winds are favourable? Credit: PTI

A neat coup has been staged in Patna. Brilliantly conceived and cleverly executed. Not with tanks and commandos but with a convenient conscience and gentrified opportunism.

Within a space of 24 hours, a chief minister resigns, divests himself of his designated alliance partners, teams up with his declared political rivals and becomes chief minister again after getting sworn in at an unseemly super-fast speed by a very obliging governor. Reads like the script of a second-rate Hindi film from the 1980s. That is Indian politics, bhai saheb. An unadulterated power confrontation gets dressed up like a morality play. On Kargil Divas day, another kind of victory is notched up. There is something decidedly un-kosher about the turn of events in Patna, yet we are invited to feel good about it, even celebrate the return of the prodigal son.

Perhaps the biggest casualty is the sanctity of a mandate in a free and fair election. Let us make no mistake about the very unnaturalness of the new government. This is the second time that the ruling party at the Centre has opted to get into a political bed with the very formation against which it sought votes from the electorate. First, it was in Jammu and Kashmir; now in Bihar. In Jammu and Kashmir, the very incongruity of the PDP-BJP alliance has severely damaged the legitimacy of the entire Indian democratic project. Every sober analyst concedes that it is the inherent disregard of the popular mandate that has fuelled the fires of defiance on the streets of Srinagar. Complications – bloody and messy – arising out of this suborning of the electoral mandate have made themselves felt way beyond the valley.

Now the same disregard of an electoral mandate has been sanctified in the Patna Raj Bhavan. A partisan governor showed indecent haste in swearing in Nitish Kumar. Indian constitutional democracy has been robbed of its already diminishing shine. Politics has been shown up as a shabby enterprise.

Why was it easy for Nitish to walk away from Lalu Prasad and his party? In part, the answer has to be that Lalu has failed to reinvent himself and has remained complacently plugged into the old sense of entitlement. He has obstinately refused to understand that old assumptions and arrangements no longer work. India has changed and so has Bihar. Those who want to rule over us need to understand that power will not be handed over to them so that they can convert public office into a licence. Instead, the new India demands that elected rulers do something in return for us: an acknowledgement of rule of law and a demonstration of respect for its institutions of accountability. A mandate no longer stops at giving izzat or atma-saman to “my people”.

Perhaps Nitish felt confident that he could play upon the middle classes’ yearning for a lawful society, whereas Lalu and his family and party continue to remain oblivious to the notions of good governance. Law has a habit of catching up with past follies and misdeeds, however keen Lalu and his sons may have been to wipe the slate clean. There is a message in all this for other family overlords – the Badals, the Paswans, the Thackerays, the Mayawatis, even the Gandhis. All of them suffer from a flawed approach to public office; that is why when in office Congressmen take to fighting one another like alley cats over the spoils of office.

Yet all this neither explains nor excuses Nitish’s elusiveness and his double-crossing of the RJD and the Congress. He would like us to believe that the Congress failed to play a mediatory role in the Bihar “crisis” that was incumbent upon it as the national party. Maybe during these last 18 months of the Bihar mahagathbandan, the Congress has had a measure of Nitish. It was indeed unusual that Nitish should have travelled to Rahul Gandhi’s residence; no one will know what transpired between the two. Possibly Nitish did not get any hint that he could be the opposition’s prime ministerial face in 2019; and, though he himself has repeatedly avowed that he does not have any national ambitions, sufficient hype was getting manufactured around his potential. Nitish is an ambitious man and there is nothing wrong with that. It is the politician’s karma. But just when the country was beginning to think that Nitish had transformed himself into a politician who stands for something more than himself, he responds to the call of his conscience and not just walks out of the alliance but also crosses over to the BJP corner.

Nitish’s presumed commitment to “secular values” is different and entirely self-serving. He never had any problem with Narendra Modi and his brand of “communal” politics. He firmly stayed put in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government after the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat on Modi’s watch; whereas, it was Ram Vilas Paswan who had his conscience pricked, making him walk out of the government. Since then, Paswan and his sons have fine-tuned their conscience and have returned to the Modi camp, perhaps making it easy for Nitish to make the same adjustment.

Yet, Nitish is also a man of monumental ego, despite all his practised sense of humbleness. He cleverly leaves his swagger at home, but that does not mean that he easily adjusts himself to a junior position. That is why he had parted company, first with Lalu (way back in the mid-1990s), then with George Fernandes, and he barely manages to put up with Sharad Yadav. In 2013, he was unwilling to subordinate his ego to Modi’s 24-karat ego. After the UP sweep, Modi had recouped the political fortunes that he had lost to Nitish and Lalu in November 2015; and, may be Nitish has made yet another tactical adjustment. He was uncomfortable being the junior partner in the mahagathbandan; now, he is again the senior partner, congruent with his ego. He does not mind the Faustian bargain, as long as he is able to sell it as a call of conscience.

There may still be a silver lining in all this. Nitish will remain his own man. Public men like him do not like it if they have to play second fiddle to their peers. It is difficult to imagine him accepting Modi as his leader just as it is difficult to see him playing a darbari in the Amit Shah court. He may even become a sobering presence in the national political calculus, hopefully even an antidote to the creeping authoritarian impulses.

Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article originally appeared. It has been edited to meet style guidelines.