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Know why Nitish Kumar is facing an existential challenge

By A.J. Philip

When I shifted to a house near Bahadurpur Gumti in Patna in the early eighties, my immediate neighbor was Dharam Bir Sinha, a former Union minister for Information and Broadcasting. He defeated Tarakeswari Sinha from the Barh constituency in 1971. He was elected again from the same constituency in 1980.

I gained a lot of insight into Bihar politics every time we met over endless cups of tea and cigarette at his home or mine. He was with Sharad Pawar those days.

One morning, he invited me and my senior colleague, the late P. Tharyan, for a breakfast meeting with Pawar at the Maurya Hotel in Patna. Since it was an off-the-record meeting, he was candid with his observations.

Tharyan had an interesting question to ask him: “Who is a better leader — K. Karunakaran or AK Antony?” Pawar did not bat his eyelid before answering that it was Karunakaran. He also gave a reason for his answer: “While Karunakaran is a leader who can be depended upon, Antony is interested only in building up his own image”.
Around that time there was an election in Patna. Sinha wanted me to go to the polling booth in his car. When we reached the booth, he found to his dismay that someone had already voted in his name. As I&B Minister he knew many top newspaper owners and editors and he did not mind telling me some interesting stories about them. These were the reasons why I found his company extremely delectable.

In Bihar, politics was and is caste-based. Sinha was the tallest Kurmi leader in Bihar. He did not accidentally step into politics. Politics ran through his blood, as his father was once the Speaker of the Bihar Assembly. He used to tell me about the plus and minus of caste politics. He did not want to be just a Kurmi leader. Alas, he could not achieve his political ambitions, as he died under mysterious circumstances at a hotel in Mumbai.

One person who benefited from his death is Nitish Kumar who emerged as the tallest Kurmi leader after him. Kurmis are like Yadavs, a backward caste but they are confined to some pockets in the state. They are traditionally vegetable growers.
The last time I visited Katihar where I found vegetable-sellers occupying the middle of the arterial road in the town, a friend quipped: “Who can touch them when Nitish Kumar is the CM?”
If politicians nurse ambition, they cannot be faulted because without ambition nobody has ever achieved anything. Of course, there are exceptions like RN Kovind, whom nobody knew before he was chosen as the Presidential candidate.

Nitish Kumar and Laloo Prasad Yadav were thrown up by the students’ movement, inspired by Loknayak Jayaprakash Narayanan, in the seventies. Nobody till today has been able to answer what JP meant by “Total Revolution” but everybody knows that his target was Indira Gandhi.

Laloo Yadav was far more resourceful than Nitish Kumar. Let me narrate an anecdote. I had fixed an appointment with Haryana Chief Minister Devilal. You may be surprised to know the time given to me for the appointment — 6 am. I interviewed Devilal as he started eating a large bowl of papaya without offering me even a piece.

As I interviewed him, there was one politician standing behind him. Devilal asked him to sit but he said, “How can I sit in front of you, Sir?” That was one moment when I felt happy to be a journalist. I could sit face to face with the tallest Opposition leader. The man who refused to sit was Laloo Yadav. It was with Devilal’s help that he became Chief Minister, pushing Nitish to a corner.

Soon, Laloo Yadav became a phenomenon. His moment in history was when he arrested LK Advani, when he entered Bihar on his way to Ayodhya spreading political and religious venom. Nitish Kumar knew that he could never counter Yadav’s popularity. He shifted his base to New Delhi where he began courting George Fernandes.

Meanwhile, Laloo Yadav had become so strong that he cared two hoots even for Devilal with whose support he came to power. Fernandes had his own reasons to turn against Laloo Yadav. The result of the Fernandes-Nitish combination was the formation of the Samata Party, mainly to cut Laloo Yadav down to size.

Nitish Kumar believes in the theory that politics is the art of the possible. Scruples do not matter to him. If he could turn against his one-time comrade-in-arms Laloo Yadav, he could do the same thing to Fernandes even. When Fernandes asked for the Muzaffarpur seat, from where he got elected once while being in jail, he realized the true nature of Nitish Kumar.

Political ideology and Nitish Kumar are poles apart. He was the Railway Minister when 59 Hindu karsevaks were burnt alive in Sabarmati Express at Godhra on February 27, 2002. It did not matter to him that Gujarat burnt in the wake of the tragedy when with the connivance of those in power the bodies were taken in processions and ordinary people were instigated to take the law into their own hands. He had no qualms of conscience when the worst-ever pogrom happened in the land of Gandhi.
His target was not the chief ministership of Bihar but the Prime Ministership of the country. Each one of his actions, save the last one, was with a purpose of achieving this target. Nitish Kumar was going strong as chief minister with the support of the BJP. He knew that Narendra Modi was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. He would have reasoned that if the chief minister of Gujarat, which is a small state compared to Bihar, could aspire to become PM, why not him?

There was no need for him to rock the JD(U)-BJP government. He suddenly saw an opportunity to emerge as the prime ministerial nominee of the combined Opposition. Suddenly he took what appeared to be a bold stand against Modi. He treated the Gujarat Chief Minister like a pariah. He insulted Modi in umpteen ways. For instance, he cancelled a dinner programme because he thought Modi would attend it.

Nitish Kumar did not want to be seen sharing the same dais or using the same dining table. What’s worse, he declined to accept the Rs 5 crore that the Gujarat Government wanted to give the people of Bihar when a natural calamity struck the state. His reason: He did not want to receive any money from Modi’s government.

This was done with a purpose. He wanted to cultivate the secular vote bank. He wanted to tell the minorities that he would not have any truck with Modi who was allegedly guilty of the genocide in Gujarat. He thought that he would be chosen by the Opposition as the natural claimant for the post of PM. Wishes, alas, are not horses.

The authoritarian streak in Nitish Kumar came to the fore when he showed the door to all the BJP ministers, who kept fuming about his treacherous nature. The criticism had no effect on the chief minister who had already made up his mind to part company with the BJP. He wore the anti-RSS, secular dress to fool the public.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, his party was trounced. Modi became the Prime Minister. Once again, his inability to win elections was proved. No, he did not want to leave power. So, Nitish Kumar chose a Scheduled Caste leader, Jitan Ram Manjhi, as the chief minister. He thought he would rule by proxy. Unfortunately for him, Manjhi was not prepared to play second fiddle to anyone.
For once, Nitish Kumar realized that the chief minister had a mind of his own. No, he was not prepared to experiment with any other person. His pro-Dalit stance was exposed when one fine morning, he took over once again as Chief Minister. People wondered why he resigned in the first place, why he allowed Manjhi to become CM and why he returned to power. All this was done to satisfy his own lust for power.

Nitish Kumar realized that if his party went to the polls alone, it would be trounced. The BJP was not inclined to go with him after the kind of treatment it received from the megalomaniac chief minister. That is when he decided to go to Laloo Prasad Yadav. He knew one thing. Laloo Yadav would not be able to become chief minister as the court verdict had politically immobilized him. So there was no risk in joining hands with him.

The BJP unleashed one of the most expensive campaigns by projecting none else but the Prime Minister. The Grand Alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the JD(U) and the Congress swept the poll bringing Nitish Kumar back to power. One of his calculations went awry. He thought that his party would emerge as the single largest party.
It was Laloo Yadav’s party which got more seats than the JD(U). For once, he realized that he would have to listen to Laloo Yadav. And he listened when he accommodated two of his sons as ministers, one as his Deputy Chief Minister. The media tried to project the sons as just dummies without realizing that they had politics running through their veins. Whatever the media might have said, the government was doing well.

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Surely, Laloo Yadav who had once controlled the Rabri Devi government for a full term while he was in jail most of the time knew how to control Nitish Kumar, particularly when he had more MLAs to support him. That is when Nitish Kumar realized that it was beneficial to be siding with the BJP. He was waiting for an opportunity. When the whole world laughed at Modi’s demonetization gamble that caused incalculable damage to the economy, Nitish Kumar supported him.

It was a sign that he was preparing for a somersault. If ever there was any doubt, it was removed when he announced support for the BJP’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind. Even when the Congress-led opposition fielded Meira Kumar, a daughter of Bihar, as the Opposition candidate, he asked some silly questions to keep supporting Kovind.

When Kovind was sworn-in as President, Nitish Kumar was given a pride of place at the function. The Modi government knows how to use power against those in the Opposition. It arrested an Aam Aadmi Party minister in Delhi for the fake certificate he had, while there are at least two Central ministers who hold fake certificates. A fresh case has been registered against Laloo Yadav’s family. One of the accused is Tejaswi Yadav.

He was in his teens when the alleged corruption happened. Yet, Nitish Kumar wanted him to explain his position. It is apparent that everything was planned in such a way that he could break the grand alliance and form a government with the support of the BJP. And that is what he did this week. An ever-obliging governor allowed him to resign, only to swear him in as Chief Minister within minutes. True, he was able to prove his majority in the House.

When Nitish Kumar resigned, the governor should have asked the leader of the largest party in the Assembly whether he could form a government. No such courtesies were shown to him. Tejaswi Yadav has in a brilliant speech in the Assembly on July 28 exposed Nitish Kumar for his chicanery. One question that he asked was why did Nitish Kumar allow four governments to be formed in the state in a little over three years? He could have jolly well continued as Chief Minister all through with the support of the BJP.

Nitish Kumar will prove too clever by half. He is foolish if he thinks that he can have any say in the decision-making process in the BJP. He will have to forget his ambition of becoming Prime Minister as there is no vacancy at the Centre. If the BJP wants, it can buy any number of JD(U) MLAs and reduce Nitish Kumar to a non-entity in politics.

Modi has no intention of leaving his job. Even if the party finds that he has served his purpose and it should have a new face, it will not be someone like Nitish Kumar but a person born and brought up in the RSS ideology like RN Kovind. Nitish Kumar will be thrown out in the same way he once threw out the BJP ministers. Let there be no mistaking about what waits in store for a man who could never win an election on his own.

(The writer, a senior journalist, can be reached at ajphilip@gmail.com)
Courtesy: Indian Currents

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