Distantly Close | Decoding the politics of Nitish Kumar of 2022 - Hindustan Times
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Distantly Close | Decoding the politics of Nitish Kumar of 2022

By Vinod Sharma
Aug 13, 2022 07:28 PM IST

Nitish’s about turn is a sequel to his failed bid to block Modi in 2014

For a deeper understanding of Nitish Kumar’s decision to restore his aborted 2015-2017 alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), one is prompted to recall a conversation with him way back in 1996, the year when Karnataka’s HD Deve Gowda became the compromise choice for Prime Minister in the Congress-backed United Front regime.

In seeking to reverse the clock, Kumar has put the battle bomb on the table. Time will tell how many among the non-BJP parties willingly make a wager on him. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
In seeking to reverse the clock, Kumar has put the battle bomb on the table. Time will tell how many among the non-BJP parties willingly make a wager on him. (HT Photo)

The RJD’s Lalu Yadav was at his prime then in Bihar and Kumar’s Samata Party, a breakaway Janata Dal faction which later evolved to be Janata Dal (United), had contested elections in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Talking informally, Kumar sardonically said that Yadav, his friend-turned-rival, would have been PM had he not fallen out with him: “Humse jhagde nahi hotey tou pradhan mantri ho gaye hote.” It seemed the reason why his party tied up with the BJP was the same for which he and another prominent Samata face, George Fernandes exited the Janata Dal. The reference point was Lalu’s socio-political autocracy which afforded little or no space to other identities, with the Yadav hegemony on his watch resented deeply by other social identities, including Kumar’s smaller but influential Kurmi clan.

Nitish Kumar explained his choice of the BJP as an ally with the comment: “I needed to survive to be in another battle…”

We must, while we read this, remember that it was then the BJP of AB Vajpayee whom LK Advani accepted and backed as PM for his Nehruvian traits of being an assimilator of contesting ideologies. There wasn’t a better face than him in the Hindutva ranks at that point to assemble allies the party needed to build and run a coalition.

Has Nitish learnt from Lalu’s mistakes?

That begs the question whether Kumar has befriended Lalu to desist from political rivalries that cost the latter the PM’s office. Was it his survival instincts that made him dump the Modified BJP which was pursuing Hindutva expansionism of the kind it has made standard practice in adjoining Uttar Pradesh?

The answer was there perhaps in Kumar’s first comments on being sworn in as CM the 8th time: “Modi ji won the 2014 polls; he should worry now for elections in 2024.” The allusion was to his own failed bid to stop Narendra Modi, then Gujarat CM, from becoming PM eight years ago. So much so that he refused to share stage with him before walking out of the National Democratic Alliance in 2013.

The polls due two years from now could, in his perception, be different. Unlike 2014, when he contested alone and won just two seats, he’d be heading the formidable JD-U-RJD-Congress-Left combination in the state that sends 40 members to Lok Sabha.

But to forecast Nitish as the Opposition’s pan-India face will be like placing the cart before the horse at the current juncture. His acceptability will certainly be higher among most anti-BJP formations, barring perhaps the ambitious Mamata Banerjee. Their relations soured over a recruitment drive by the Railways Ministry that he then headed under AB Vajpayee.

The coalition test

There are many a slip between the cup and the lip in politics. To stay on course as a contestant for the top job, Kumar will first have to make the alliance work and deliver on its promises.

Tejasvi Yadav, his deputy from the RJD, has ostensibly evolved into a more mature politician since 2017. Much will depend on how deftly he controls his Yadav support base from going berserk and hurting the alliance the way it dented his father’s image in his heydays. A slip-up on that score will help the saffron forces draw the extremely backward (Ati Pichada) out of Kumar’s court to their side of the playfield.

“A leader who cannot give an effective coalition on his home turf cannot be trusted with a national front with multiple stakeholders,” admitted an RJD leader. He hoped nevertheless that partners in the new Bihar line-up will learn from their past mistakes to do better. “They’ll have to watch out their actions. The BJP is dispirited but it’ll be resolute in pushing its exclusive agenda; it’ll not hesitate to use probe agencies to embarrass and destabilise the coalition.”

Congress’s stamp on Nitish and the domino effect

In building the national electoral edifice for which the foundation seems to have been laid (or so it appears) in the key Hindi-speaking state, the Congress, though a minor player in Bihar, will have a crucial role. If it cedes space to Kumar, it will attain the moral high to trigger a domino rush on the anti-BJP side.

For that to happen, the grand old party which is the largest among Opposition formations despite its shrunken state, would need to stay level-headed even if it registers victories in states where polls are due before the general elections. Internally, the party gives itself a fighting chance in Himachal and Karnataka, if not in Gujarat.

A major drawback on the drawing board is the Congress’s feeble challenge to the BJP in straight contests in parliamentary polls where the Modi factor worked wonders in 2014 and 2019. A disturbing guide to that is the party’s abysmal show in the Lok Sabha polls in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh within months of winning the 2018 assembly elections. An exception to that was Punjab which the party has since lost to Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party.

The road ahead is bumpy

Right now, it may seem a long shot. But a formal position for Nitish in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) architecture could sharpen his war cry if other things work out, especially the governance issues in Bihar and a broad agreement on his candidature among potential allies across India.

As the Opposition’s face, Kumar cannot be to the UPA what Andhra leader Chandrababu Naidu was to the United Front as its convener post-1996. That role would have to be performed by a weighty leader from another party, such as the NCP’s Sharad Pawar or any other acceptable candidate who isn’t vying for the PM’s slot. The road ahead isn’t smooth, therefore. It’s bumpy.

That brings one to deciphering as to how inclined is Kumar to throw the gauntlet to Modi? The reality is that his party, short of sounding the bugle, had set the ball rolling a year ago, in August 2021. In the manner of a nuclear-capable state which could make the bomb but hasn’t, the JD (U) showcased its leader as PM-qualified.

It was the first authoritative expression of Kumar’s discomfort with the BJP, which got the Lok Janshakti Party’s Chirag Paswan to do the hatchet job of selectively fielding candidates against JD-(U), to restrict Its numbers in the assembly. The result — a reversal of the BJP-JD (U) equation in Bihar, relegating the latter to the status of a junior partner after the 2020 assembly elections.

Kumar then had attributed the PM-material buzz to “workers’ chatter” at the JD-U national council meet. But could he have been unaware of the resolution the council passed underscoring his prime ministerial attributes? Certainly not. For that’s how signalling is done or a discourse molded in politics. Till before he junked his alliance with the RJD to set up a government with the BJP, he was widely seen as the Opposition’s answer to Modi. The effort now is to revive the promise which vanished with his 2017 embrace of the Hindutva party.

In seeking to reverse the clock, Kumar has put the battle bomb on the table. Time will tell how many among the non-BJP parties willingly make a wager on him.

HT’s veteran political editor, Vinod Sharma, brings together his four-decade-long experience of closely tracking Indian politics, his intimate knowledge of the actors who dominate the political theatre, and his keen eye which can juxtapose the past and the present in his weekly column, Distantly Close

vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com

The views expressed are personal

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