Will Nitish ‘Kursi’ Kumar Find a Way Out of the Hole He Has Dug Himself?

After his chief ministerial term ends in 2019, Nitish Kumar will have to deal with a BJP which is suspicious of regional leaders like him.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Credit: Reuters/Stringer/Files

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Credit: Reuters/Stringer/Files

On July 26, when national politics was reeling under the sudden impact of Patna’s coup d’état, Twitter creativity produced one of its most sardonic line. The telling comment in Hindi defined the expanding Modi Raj in one stroke: “Jahan ham chunav jeetate hain vahan to sarkar banate hi hain, jahan nahin jeetate vahan to nishchit roop se banate hain (We form government on winning election, but we definitely form government on failing to win)”. After Goa and Manipur, it was the state of Bihar where the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo deployed their political technology in a way that would give competition to the most Machiavellian of strategists. Never in the political history of independent India have the central government’s top investigative agencies been instrumentalised in such a ruthless and effective manner, radically altering power equations in a large state.

Hindsight now reveals that the BJP was relentlessly working to undo the formidable grand alliance of Bihar in the post-UP election scenario. Fearful that the electoral drubbing would drive Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati towards the same kind of grand alliance, the BJP wanted to prove that it had the capacity to subvert any attempt at forging or sustaining a non-BJP front either at the state or at the national level in the foreseeable future.

Had Bihar’s grand alliance survived, it could have become a successful model of electoral as well as governmental resistance against the seemingly unstoppable central regime in Delhi. If sustained at Patna, this model of opposition could have been replicated at Lucknow and tested at Phulpur, a parliamentary constituency which is possibly going to be vacated by Keshav Prasad Maurya, the deputy chief minister in the Adityanath government. Modi’s strategists betrayed their desperation when they began talking about recalling Maurya to the Centre so that the opportunity for a similar alliance can further be pushed back.

Now they must surely be feeling relieved. The 40-odd Sushil Modi press conferences and a slew of raids on Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family have worked perfectly to served a three-fold purpose: Bihar is secured and the plight of Lalu has instilled the fear of the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate and the IT department in the already weak hearts of Akhilesh, his father and Mayawati. The defection of Nitish Kumar to the NDA camp has ensured that the national opposition will remain in perpetual disarray.

What happened in Bihar is a lesson in tactics that has been delivered by two veterans of state politics. Sushil has hogged public limelight as Nitish has perfected his design in the backroom. In fact, Nitish sold a dummy not only to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress, but also to his own party leaders. In many ways, the machinations were the result of a three-month game of dodging played by Nitish.

Nitish’s backroom parleys with the BJP was hedging against counter-hedging by Lalu, where he was trying to save his skin in the face of serious corruption allegations. For the Congress, Lalu remained its point man and Nitish knew he could never replace the Yadav chief at Sonia Gandhi’s dinner table. Moreover, as chief minister, he had never enjoyed a position of dominance because Lalu had more seats than the Janata Dal (United). In addition, the Congress always backed the RJD. It was common knowledge that Lalu’s sons, particularly the ambitious Tejashwi, would never let go of an opportunity to flout the chief minister’s authority.

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Credit: PTI Photo

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Credit: PTI Photo

In the face of his increasingly strained relationship with a difficult coalition partner, the RJD, which failed to mend its corrupt, nepotistic ways, Nitish found himself in the throes of a dilemma. It seems that the usually astute and farsighted Nitish ultimately decided to opt for a short-term, easy strategy instead of a long-term one.

Already a five-time chief minister, yet another tenure would not have added to Nitish’s political stature. However, he could have cast himself as an avatar of Jayaprakash Narayan by sacrificing the lure of power and embarking on a popular journey across Bihar, and then across the country. Since he was already hailed as the one leader who had the capability to derail Modi’s plans of securing another term in 2019, the forces of opposition were bound to accept him as the fulcrum of anti-BJP unity. Sadly for the Indian democracy, Nitish, not heeding the call of posterity, consigned himself to the dustbin of history where already a number of opportunists awaited him.

The almost total support of 18% Muslims (mostly pasmandas whose politics prospered under Nitish), 14% Yadavs along with the Left and secular publics of Bihar had significantly contributed to the mahagathbandhan’s victory in 2015. His volte-face, unsurprisingly, has earned Nitish the derision of being labelled ‘Kursi Kumar’. Feeling betrayed and angry, they now face the jeopardy of having to ally with Lalu, whose legitimacy has touched a new low in this highly-politicised state.

The close observers of regional politics can predict the new electoral arithmetic that is going to emerge in this scenario: Paswans, Kushwahas, ‘upper’ castes, Mahadalits and EBCs are set to form the new matrix of Hindutva. Besides, a number of locally-effective Yadav leaders (Hukumdev Narayan, Ram Kripal Yadav, Nand Kishore Yadav, Pappu Yadav) would not lose this opportunity to challenge Lalu’s sway over the community. Hindu unity looks formidable in the light of Nitish’s prohibition policy, which is expected top fetch his party votes of women. The new and unexpected situation has come as a boon for the Sangh parivar.

If nothing extraordinary unravels, Nitish could be expected to sail through the rest of his tenure as chief minister. But after 2019, the chief minister will have to deal with a BJP which is suspicious of regional leaders like him. Surely Nitish would know that L.K. Advani’s dictum of ‘NDA plus’ has long been dead and Modi’s party is working on the theory of ‘BJP plus plus’. One wonders whether Nitish will be able to wriggle out of the hole that he has dug for himself. At the moment, the chances of that happening appear slim.

Abhay Kumar Dubey is a professor at CSDS, Delhi and directs its Indian Language Programme.