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U-turn babu: The politics of being Nitish Kumar

NewsU-turn babu: The politics of being Nitish Kumar

NEW DELHI: What can better describe the politics of being Nitish Kumar than newspaper headlines that referred to him as “The Former & Future CM of Bihar”? Another social media meme refers to him as someone who resigns from his job only when he has an Offer Letter in his pocket. But the adroitness with which the eight-term Chief Minister does this trapeze act, ensuring that he always lands in the CM’s chair displays a sharp survival instinct that focuses on the end, rather than the means.
Nitish was not always so pragmatic. Idealism was very much a part of his politics when he joined the socialist movement, was jailed during the Emergency and even did business with the communists for a brief while. He was married young but didn’t take a dowry and even after he became CM his family stayed back in the village. His first few stints as Chief Minister earned him the sobriquet of Sushashan Babu (Good Governance Man) as he was a keen administrator and knew how to get the bureaucracy to work. Moreover, his tenure in office followed the breakdown of law and order under Lalu Yadav’s misrule and was welcomed as a breath of fresh air in the state, especially when the roads began to get built and light bulbs actually came on. Nitish’s scheme of distributing cycles to school girls has been copied all over India.
Then where did he go wrong? Though that is perhaps not the right question for Nitish is not the first, nor the last politician to compromise with ideology for power, so why single him out. The main question today is: Where will his latest U-turn take him? Certainly, he is back in the CM’s chair but perhaps that is no longer his aim. The current Bihar Chief Minister’s dreams seem to have taken on a national hue, and why not. The Opposition lacks a Prime Ministerial face to take on Narendra Modi. The Gandhis do not make the cut, Mamata Banerjee and KCR certainly have ambitions but lack appeal outside their home state. At least Nitish has a pan North India appeal, and could sway the migrant Bihari vote in states outside the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar. There is also the inter-state rivalry in the Hindi heartland which has seen many PMs from Uttar Pradesh but none from Bihar. Plus Nitish is Hindi speaking and that is a huge advantage. I recall what Pranab Mukherjee once told me in an interview: “I will never be the PM because my Hindi is not good enough.” Unfortunately for her, Mamata Banerjee has the same disadvantage and her appeal will be restricted to West Bengal. She tried her luck in the recent elections in Goa and Manipur but was unable to make a dent. KCR too lacks a base in North India, some would say that his appeal is limited to Telangana alone and does not even extend to Andhra. As for Sharad Pawar, the perennial PM Face in Waiting, he is now too old. Plus he has health issues. The other candidate is Arvind Kejriwal, who has made no secret of his national ambitions, which have been renewed after the Punjab win. Plus his party is making steady gains in other states as well, from Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat, to faraway Jammu. Kejriwal certainly will do his best to emerge as an alternative to Modi, but his abrasive politics has made him few friends, even within the Opposition.
This brings us back to Nitish Kumar’s audacious gambit. He certainly has the experience to give a challenging counter narrative to Modi—from welfare politics to development. In fact, their politics are very similar. Take for instance the way Modi has specific schemes targeted for the women vote, so does Nitish—from prohibition to bikes for school girls. And just as you cannot fault Modi on corruption neither can u target Nitish. For one, like the Prime Minister he also stays away from his family. His son Nishant doesn’t live with the CM and doesn’t dabble in politics. Very little is known about the CM’s four siblings who also stay away from the perks of power. Just as the public doesn’t question the PM’s integrity (despite Rahul Gandhi’s slogan of 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 also not a dynast but a self-made politician who rose from the ranks.
But there is 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. His own appeal in the state is also declining as is clear from the JD(U)’s seat tally, which has been falling steadily. The JD(U) currently has 43 seats in the Assembly when in 2015 it had 71. The party had peaked in the 2010 state polls when it won 115 of the 141 it contested along with the BJP. Since then it has been downhill for the JD(U), whether Nitish fought along with Modi or against him. The wily leader knows that he is now entering the last leg of his political career for while Tejashwi Yadav is content to play deputy to his CM-ship for now, he will not be so willing in a few years’ time and will probably be contesting the next state polls as a CM face. Currently the RJD is the single largest party in the state. So in looking for a national role for himself, the Sultan of Swing is being pragmatic—and not just ambitious.

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