Why Nitish Kumar's Measured Distance From BJP Holds Value in These Times

Even while sharing the dais with BJP brass, Nitish has never joined the party in delegitimising the nationwide protests against CAA, NRC and NPR.

Patna: Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is currently at the centre of a storm, battling allegations that he has compromised on his socialist and secular ideology to maintain the alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party for the Delhi Assembly polls, or his ambivalence on the Citizenship Amendment Act. 

While this may largely be the opinion of analysts who observe the Centre rather closely, those in Bihar, however, can’t discount the particular political quandary Kumar currently faces.  

After his expulsion from the Janata Dal (United) in the wake of sending a letter in which he revealed Nitish’s “apprehension” about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP in a “private conversation” on “more than one occasion” to him, the former diplomat and author, Pavan K. Varma has since sharpened his critique of Nitish’s “ideological drift”. 

However, Nitish as a person and Nitish as a key operator in concurrent power politics remain valid subjects for closer examination. 

Those who know Nitish for quite some time know it well that the brand of socialism as propounded by Ram Manohar Lohia and secularism as enshrined in the Indian constitution have a distinct place in Nitish’s heart.

Varma didn’t actually make any staggering revelations when he said that Nitish had expressed “apprehension” about the RSS-BJP in private conversations. 

Nitish might well have shared his personal opinion on Hindutva with many other personal acquaintances. Otherwise a reserved person, known for his economy of words, Nitish has the proclivity to talk his heart out in private conversations. 

It thus perhaps didn’t bother Nitish at all when Varma – even while he was the JD(U)’s general secretary – attacked the RSS-BJP’s insidiously divisive Hindutva agenda. What stung Nitish was Varma’s “revelation” of the content that Nitish, purportedly, shared in private conversation.

The point to be noticed here is Nitish didn’t deny the “revealed content”. He simply said, “I can never reveal what Varma has told to me in private conversation. Private conversations are not brought in the public realm”.

It is a fact that Nitish Kumar had given a call for “Sangh mukt Bharat” when he was with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress. It is also a fact that he had stated that he would prefer to be broken into smithereens rather than return to BJP. He has strongly questioned Narendra Modi on the issue of secularism and the idea of India.

Nitish and Modi. Photo: PTI

If one carefully decodes the journey of Nitish’s speeches and statements, one will find very easily that Nitish has never given a clean chit to Narendra Modi despite sharing the dais with him on several occasions. He is seldom in tune with the BJP, despite returning to the NDA in 2017. 

Nitish is a rare politician who has effectively mastered the art of keeping his person and his politics separate.  

When he broke out from the NDA, he had doggedly attempted to unite the opposition to the extent that he was the strongest votary of the six old Janata Parivar factions merger. It’s not out of the way to think that Nitish, who had staged a comeback as the Bihar chief minister after defeating the resurgent BJP in 2015, might have harboured the ambition to emerge a rallying point of opposition unity against the BJP. 

Somehow, his efforts didn’t work and he returned to the NDA despite all his “reservations” and “apprehensions”. But now, he is faced with the challenge to retain his position as the chief minister of Bihar while also retaining his supremacy against the BJP, his ally in the state. 

Nitish must wage wars on two fronts at a time — against his ideological adversary and political ally, BJP, and against the political opponents and ideological mates that the RJD-Congress are to him.

Even in such a situation, Nitish has rejected the NRC, has asked the prime minister to drop the six new questions in the NPR and has left it to the Supreme Court decide on the CAA’s constitutional validity despite supporting it in the parliament.

Also read: Decoding Nitish Kumar’s Curious Stand on NRC-CAA

He has never joined the BJP in delegitimising the nationwide protests going on against CAA, NRC and NPR. Rather, he admonished his administration for detaining CPI leader Kanhaiya Kumar near Gandhi Ashram at Bhittiharwa in Bihar’s West Champaran district and said, “The people have the right to protest”.

He shared the dais with Union home minister Amit Shah in Delhi on February 2 to campaign for a party candidate contesting on a solitary seat in alliance with the BJP. He showcased his government’s achievements in Bihar and attacked Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, as a political rival should do. But he neither joined in with BJP leaders’ tirade that Arvind Kejriwal was a “terrorist” or “anti-national”. Nor did he speak against Shaheen Bagh. 

In his latest interview to The Wire, the eminent academic and profound political thinker Pratap Bhanu Mehta said to Karan Thapar, “It is not important who replaces Narendra Modi as next PM. What is important is how Indian society reeling under repeated shocks from majoritarian dispensation will be rebuilt and resurrected by whosoever replaces Modi as the PM”.

If Mehta’s observations are seen in the context of Bihar, Nitish’s successor will not inherit as pulverised or broken a Bihar as Adityanath’s successor will, in Uttar Pradesh.

There are few instances of communal disharmony and police excesses on protesters in Bihar and even the BJP leaders — despite their alliance with Nitish — don’t have the temerity to hoodwink Muslims or question their patriotism in the state.

Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and co-author of the book Gopalganj to Raisina: My Political Journey, Lalu Prasad’s autobiography.