Even before Ram Vilas Paswan’s demise added one more layer of uncertainty about the Bihar electoral landscape, it was by no means certain that Nitish Kumar’s lien on the Patna Secretariat would have been renewed. The unpredictability has as much to do with the Lok Janshakti Party’s open challenge to the pretensions of the ‘Sushasan Babu’ as to do with the role Nitish Kumar has chosen for himself, in and out of Bihar.
At the end of the day, it appears that history had assigned Nitish Kumar only one role – to help the BJP garner acceptability and respectability in the eyes of the backward and marginalised classes in Bihar. A man who once laid claim to the Karpoori Thakur mantle was wooed by the Hindutva strategists; they worked on his enormous ego, his ambition, and on the basic irreconcilability of Yadavs and Kurmis.
The BJP strategists played him like a well-tuned tanpura, so much so that when a Ram Vilas Paswan could gather the courage and the conviction to walk out of the Union cabinet after former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee failed to tame the erstwhile chief minister of Gujarat in the wake of the 2002 riots, Nitish Kumar stayed put in the NDA. His continued presence as a Central minister did help Vajpayee sustain the image of a moderate man acceptable beyond the BJP’s narrow confines.
It was only in 2013 – and, by that time, Vajpayee was confined to a ventilator and L.K. Advani had been scorned and marginalised within the BJP – that Nitish Kumar refused to play in the Sangh parivar’s Hindutva orchestra. After all, he was chief minister of a much bigger state than Gujarat and was not without dormant national ambitions; he saw no reason to play second fiddle to Narendra Modi.
And, in 2015, it was Nitish Kumar who took the sheen off a rampant Narendra Modi when the JD(U)-RJD-Congress combine worsted the BJP. More importantly, suddenly, the Bihar chief minister was seen by many – including the Sangh parivar pracharaks – as the only man who could rally the non-BJP forces around, a la Devi Gowda. Nitish Kumar had to be contained.
Having sized the man up, the BJP strategists assiduously went to work on Nitish Kumar’s ego and authoritarian impulses, and succeeded in stringing him along. From Nitish’s point of view, the saffron party’s Bihar leader Sushil Modi was any day preferable as a deputy chief minister than those demanding Yadav siblings.
However, when he switched back to the BJP, ditching the RJD, he ended up squandering his only worthwhile asset – he could no longer withhold endorsing Narendra Modi’s political persona. Modi’s political untouchability was finally over. By the time of the 2019 Lok Sabha battle, Nitish was just another chief minister, say, like Naveen Patnaik, who could neither add nor subtract from the Modi sales-pitch.
Coming the Bihar assembly battle of 2020, it is a different BJP and a different Narendra Modi – and both are tired of Nitish Kumar’s prima donna pretensions. He has already become dispensable because he has outlived his usefulness, and has to be made to squirm.
Enter the young Chirag Paswan. After extended discussions with BJP leaders, the working boss of the LJP announced a divorce from Nitish Kumar and his JD(U) in Bihar. And, all the Amit Shah-embed political reporters, privy to the inner most calculus of BJP’s ‘Chanakya’, fell over one another to whisper knowingly about the very clever game the BJP had played.
Never mind the BJP’s very elaborate and very public assurances handed out a few days later that Nitish Kumar remains the NDA’s chief ministerial choice, no one in Bihar is prepared to bet that the Modi-Shah duo would abide by that promise. Ask Uddhav Thackeray.
Till two weeks ago, the NDA was cock-a-hoop. The Bihar election was in its pocket. All that these super-strategists and masters of sub-caste politics had to do was to rekindle the memories of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s jungle raj – yes, 15 years ago. The calculation was that the new middle class would recoil from the image the BJP and big media had conjured all these years — of marauding Yadavs swooping down Patna, grabbing upper-caste property and women. We were confidently told that the Bihar voters – otherwise hailed as the most politically conscious electorate in the country – would blindly follow their caste leaders, euphemistically called “social coalition partners”.
At best, it was a self-serving assumption that the Bihari imagination remains so hopelessly locked in the memories of the 1990s that voters will be all too willing to ignore the pain and humiliation faced only a few months ago by the millions and millions of migrants and their families, all because of a callous, incompetent and arrogant Central government.
We were also reminded of the massive pay-offs coming the NDA’s way because of the Sushant Singh Rajput death. The whole of Bihar was supposed to be eternally grateful to the chief minister for standing up for a Bihari boy. A man who was not moved by the plight of the millions of Biharis trekking back home after Modi’s abrupt and thoughtless lockdown is now being serenaded for getting agitated over the death-by-suicide in distant Mumbai of a movie star.
We were also told that Modi’s popularity remains undented; the ruling party’s clever propagandists have already worked in the martyrdom of the ‘Bihar regiment’ on the India-China border – never mind the national disgrace of Chinese troops denying India the use of 1,000 square kilometres of its own land. It is Nitish Kumar who will now need Narendra Modi to garner votes for the JD(U) candidates.
In any case, Chirag Pawan will make Nitish Kumar the issue, which would tear into the ‘Sushasan Babu’ image. The Bihar battle will produce more than one loser – but this much is clear: Nitish Kumar will not be among the winners.
Note: The article was edited on October 23, 2020, to remove the ambiguity a reader felt in the author’s characterisation of the BJP’s electoral strategy in Bihar.