The Loneliness of Being Nitish Kumar

Apart from staving off attacks from young leaders Tejashwi Yadav and Chirag Paswan, the Bihar chief minister also needs to keep looking over his shoulder to see if the BJP is still with him.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar must be a lonely man today, finding himself cornered from all sides. He has Tejashwi Yadav in hot pursuit, as well as Chirag Paswan charging at him from the flanks. Most importantly, he has to look over his shoulder to see if his ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is still with him. That such a predicament would befall the man famous for his survival instincts could not have been anticipated by anyone. Alas, such is the nature of politics.

Even a month ago, a fourth straight term for Nitish Kumar seemed a foregone conclusion. The numbers, on paper, massively favoured the Janata Dal (United)-BJP combine – a conglomerate of upper castes, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Mahadalits making up its vote bank. But the latent anti-incumbency wave that swept the state following the long-drawn migrant exodus on foot is now threatening to devour this dexterous politician, adept both at running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.

Nitish Kumar can be hitherto excused for taking things lightly, for there was no challenger on the horizon and Tejashwi Yadav was not seen to be a serious contender after the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s rout in the 2019 general election, returning zero seats. But it doesn’t take long in politics for the tide to turn. A carefully-weighed promise of a million government jobs is what it took for the predominantly young and aspirational electorate to take Tejashwi seriously. Now it was the turn of Nitish Kumar to fume and fret and question from where resources could be found to make such a leap possible. Tejashwi pointed out how there were four-and-a-half-lakh vacancies already, and the need for scaling up a poorly-manned bureaucracy and other government departments inadequately equipped to deal with an ever-burgeoning population. Tejashwi argued how the Bihar government wasn’t utilising even its central outlays optimally and how there is always a way if there is a will.

Bihar elections Tejashwi Yadav

RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav addresses an election rally ahead of Bihar Assembly elections, at Hilsa in Nalanda District, Friday, October 23, 2020. Photo: PTI

Having smelt blood, Tejashwi chose to rub it in, taking on Nitish Kumar on a regular basis and questioning the sushasan babu’s track record on development. What happened to the promised jobs, employment and factories, Tejashwi asked.

Faced with the prospect of a 31-year-old upstart emerging out of nowhere and challenging him head-on, it was natural for Nitish to feel indignant. The fact that people were talking Tejashwi up, who took baby steps in governance as his own deputy, made the veteran in Nitish feel slighted. No wonder then that there have been multiple lapses of judgement, his indignation often getting the better of him.

Also Read: Tejashwi Yadav, the Leader, Has Arrived

A sense of anxiety

The frayed nerves betrayed a sense of anxiety, at the looming prospect of the end of a carefully-crafted political career, steeled by multiple failures along the way. There is no way Nitish wants to give up his chair on somebody else’s terms; he couldn’t forsake chief ministership even if it meant having to involuntarily embrace (metaphorically, of course) Narendra Modi, or even if it meant he would end up playing second fiddle to the BJP sooner than later.

But what does Nitish want? For a man once tipped to lay claim to the top job as someone who could challenge the hegemony of Narendra Modi in the Hindi heartland, Nitish Kumar would always make politically correct statements invoking his provincial party’s strength while ruling such prospects out. He was perhaps content ruling Bihar as his fief and leaving a legacy of his own. That way, Nitish Kumar has already left a lasting legacy; he did well to raise Bihar, especially in his first seven-and-a-half years, where he consistently delivered double-digit growth, till his risky decision to break up with the BJP.

The next seven-and-a-half years would see Nitish busy playing survival games: staving off the BJP, propping up Jitan Ram Majhi as a means of taking moral responsibility, teaming up with friend-turned-foe Lalu Prasad Yadav to form a ‘grand alliance’, inadvisably breaking it at the first opportunity, and getting back to doing business with a Narendra Modi-led BJP, the same party he had spurned in 2013.

The Gujarati duo of Modi and Shah, chose to do business with Nitish Kumar for he was indispensable for the time being to allow the BJP to claw its way back to power in Bihar – settling of scores can always wait. Like a cat which plays with its prey, Nitish is now at the BJP’s mercy to be pounced upon at a moment of the BJP’s choice.

Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

Even if he were to stave off Tejashwi’s challenge, where does that leave Nitish Kumar? By all accounts, the JD(U) will end up with a much-lower seat tally than its present figures and become a junior partner to the BJP. And having promised to keep him in the job he so loves, the BJP might even indulge Nitish Kumar; yet, it will be waiting for the right moment to strike and effect a coup. The foxy politician that Kumar is, he would already have a fair idea of what is to become of him once the elections are done, regardless of the result. And perhaps that explains the erroneous conduct of the man who always put a premium on his image and public utterances.

On more than one occasion this election, Nitish Kumar has lost his temper faced with sloganeering in favour of the Yadavs. Nitish also made personal barbs against Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family, even going to the extent of hitting below the belt. Nitish raked up the failed marriage of Lalu’s maverick son Tej Pratap Yadav while canvassing for Yadav’s estranged father-in-law, Chandrika Rai. Then he went one step further, making an issue of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s large family, trying to invoke the issue of patriarchy, forgetting the basic rules of political conduct in the process. Nitish Kumar seems to be on a mission to unravel his own image – an image he so assiduously built over a span of decades.

Nitish’s predicament is entirely his own making. Having burned bridges with everyone across the spectrum from friends to foes, even well-meaning advisors like former ambassador Pavan Varma and political strategist Prashant Kishor, whom he wanted to mentor as his successor. Kumar must now contend with his own fate, and live out the rest of the drama, in what could well imitate a Shakespearean tragedy.

Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based independent journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post.