U-turn babu: The politics of being Nitish Kumar

NEW DELHI: What could better describe the politics of being Nitish Kumar than newspaper headlines calling him “the former and future CM of Bihar”? Another social media meme describes him as someone who will only quit his job if he has a letter of offer in his pocket. But the skill with which the eight-year-old prime minister pulls off this trapeze act, ensuring he always lands in the CM’s chair, shows a keen survival instinct that focuses on the end rather than the means.
Nitish wasn’t always so pragmatic. Idealism was an integral part of his politics as he joined the socialist movement, was imprisoned during the state of emergency and even briefly did business with the communists. He was married young but took no dowry and even after he became CM his family stayed behind in the village. His early stints as prime minister earned him the nickname Sushashan Babu (Man of Good Governance) as he was a zealous administrator and knew how to make bureaucracy work. Furthermore, his tenure followed the collapse of law and order under Lalu Yadav’s mismanagement and was welcomed as a breath of fresh air in the state, especially when the roads were built and the lightbulbs actually came on. Nitish’s plan to give out bicycles to schoolgirls was replicated across India.
Where did he go wrong then? Although maybe that’s not the right question, because Nitish isn’t the first nor the last politician to compromise ideology in order to gain power, so why single him out? The key question today is: where will his recent reversal take him? Sure, he’s back in the CM’s chair, but maybe that’s not his goal anymore. The current Bihar premier’s dreams seem to have taken on a national hue, and why not. The opposition lacks the face of a prime minister to take on Narendra Modi. The Gandhis don’t make it, Mamata Banerjee and KCR certainly have ambitions but are unattractive outside of their home state. At the very least, Nitish has appeal across northern India and could influence the Bihari choice of migrants in states outside of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats. There is also the interstate rivalry in the Hindi heartland which has seen many prime ministers from Uttar Pradesh but none from Bihar. Plus Nitish speaks Hindi and that’s a big plus. I remember what Pranab Mukherjee once told me in an interview: “I will never be Prime Minister because my Hindi is not good enough.” Unfortunately, Mamata Banerjee has the same disadvantage and her appeal will be limited to West Bengal. She tried her luck in the recent elections in Goa and Manipur, but was unsuccessful. Also, KCR lacks a base in northern India, some would say its appeal is limited to just Telangana and doesn’t even extend to Andhra. As for Sharad Pawar, the eternal PM face-in-waiting, he’s too old now. In addition, he has health problems. The other candidate is Arvind Kejriwal, who has made no secret of his national ambitions, renewed after the victory in Punjab. His party is also making steady strides in other states, from Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat to faraway Jammu. Kejriwal will certainly do his best to present an alternative to Modi, but his aggressive policies have won him few friends, even within the opposition.
Which brings us back to Nitish Kumar’s bold gambit. He certainly has the experience of delivering a challenging counterstatement to Modi – from welfare politics to development. In fact, their politics are very similar. Take for example the way Modi has developed specific programs for women’s choice, as has Nitish – from bans to bikes for school girls. And just like you can’t blame Modi for corruption, you can’t target Nitish either. For one thing, like the prime minister, he also keeps away from his family. His son Nishant does not live with the CM and does not dabble in politics. Very little is known about the CM’s four siblings, who also shun the perks of power. Just as the public does not question the prime minister’s integrity (despite Rahul Gandhi’s slogan Chowkidar Chor Hai), the public also believes in Nitish’s neeyat (credibility). Nitish definitely has more friends within the opposition than the AAP leader. Like Modi, he is not a dynast, but a self-made politician who has risen from the ranks.
But there’s a catch. The Nitish of 2022 is not the same as the Nitish of 2013 when he took on Narendra Modi and broke away from the BJP. Its own appeal in the state is also declining, as evidenced by the steadily declining JD(U) seat count. The JD(U) currently has 43 seats in the assembly, down from 71 in 2015. The party had peaked in the state polls in 2010, winning 115 of the 141 it contested alongside the BJP. Since then, whether Nitish fought with Modi or against him, things have been downhill for the JD(U). The wily leader knows he is now entering the final leg of his political career because while Tejashwi Yadav is content to play his CM ship’s second-in-command for now, in a few years he will not be so willing and will probably compete in the next state elections as a CM face. Currently, the RJD is the largest single party in the state. So when it comes to finding a national role for himself, the sultan of swing is pragmatic — not just ambitious.

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