Nitish Kumar’s unenviable last reign

Nitish Kumar’s unenviable last reign

Narendra Modi is now the power behind the throne in Bihar and Nitish Kumar has none but himself to blame for the situation

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Credit: PTI Photo

Decades ago, when Charan Singh became India's Prime Minister in July 1979, with 'outside' support of Indira Gandhi, the noted journalist and editor, late Boobli George Verghese, famously wrote, while Charan Singh had the office, the power was held by Indira Gandhi. It would not be impertinent to say that the same is the case with Nitish Kumar. He may have returned to his old office as Bihar Chief Minister, but power has been snatched away by the BJP, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his close aides.

Last week, as Modi strutted around his party office in the national capital, with almost his entire council of ministers and party office bearers appearing to fawn over him and attempting to catch his eye and register their presence, it was evident that the victory celebrations were directed at cocking a snook as much at his principal adversary, the Tejashwi Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), as much as Nitish Kumar and his party, the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)).

History had come a full circle in Bihar and Modi did not waste the opportunity to make the changed equation within the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) obvious to the JD(U) chief. When the two parties first came together in the mid-1990s, (the JD(U) then existed as Samata Party under George Fernandes' leadership), the BJP was the bigger partner but roles were reversed subsequently, chiefly due to the absence of a charismatic state leader in the Saffron fold. 

Becoming the ‘senior’ partner

Ever since Nitish Kumar returned to the NDA fold in 2016, it was evident that at the first opportunity, the BJP would reclaim its primacy. Throughout the election campaign in Bihar, it was obvious that for the BJP the poll was as much about being able to ensure the return of an NDA government to office, as about emerging as the 'senior' partner in the alliance. 

Modi views alliances as being purely transactional and driven solely by 'what's-there-in-it-for-me' calculation. When he was still Gujarat Chief Minister and the BJP was short of allies, I had asked Modi if he hoped to forge electoral pacts if he was made the BJP leader. His reply was typically Modi-sque: ‘When our winnability was high, they were with us, but they deserted us when our winnability decreased. If they think it has risen again, they will come back.’ Nothing testified to his assertion being bang on than Nitish Kumar's seeking votes this time in the name of Modi. It was a cruel blow for a man who once mocked Modi and disallowed him from campaigning in Bihar in the 2009 and 2010 parliamentary and assembly polls, respectively.

Bihar’s confounding mandate

Winnability, however, is relative. Come to think of it, not one – neither a single leader or party – has a clear mandate in Bihar. In terms of personalities, electors of the state gave a thumbs down to Nitish Kumar even as they gave a thumbs up to the emerging leader on the horizon – Tejashwi Yadav. It is also the worst kept secret that the BJP played its role in Nitish Kumar's declining fortunes by propping up Chirag Paswan. The extent of the mandate against Nitish Kumar can be gauged by the drop of 28 seats in his party's tally. In contrast, Tejashwi Yadav led the party and alliance in his father's absence astutely. Although the Rashtriya Janata Dal's (RJD) tally dipped marginally from 80 to 75 seats, its vote share went up from 18.35 per cent to 23.11 per cent, a rise of almost five percentage points. Yet, the mandate is not a complete one and at best can be quantified as being three-fourths of an electoral endorsement for Tejashwi Yadav. 

The BJP has increased its tally appreciably from 53 to 74 seats but its vote share shrunk from 24.42 per cent to 19.46 per cent, a decline of 4.96 per cent. Clearly, this is not a verdict that mandates the nature of the victory ceremony the BJP held, but then, this is acceptable in the first-past-the-post system where the final tally is what matters in the end. 

Little-known Deputy CMs 

The moot question, however, is if the BJP has been provided with a victory that can lay a platform for it to emerge as the only dominant party in coming elections or would it continue to require allies, either smaller ones as in the just concluded polls, or a large one like the JD(U).

The diminished profile of the chief minister certainly raises the prospect of a section of his party drifting into the BJP, aware that his winnability, ironically the same factor that forced him to seek votes in Modi's name, too had declined. That this process is certainly one of the objectives of the BJP is discernible in its decision to jettison Sushil Modi from the position of Deputy Chief Minister. The two BJP nominees for the position had people rushing to google their names as little was known about them. Their nominal stature vis-a-vis the national leadership and even when compared to other state leaders in Bihar, who have acquired prominence in recent years, reminded me of a R K Laxman cartoon when Indira Gandhi had, in the early 1980s, begun nominating little-known leaders as chief ministers. The cartoon depicted her walking past a file of Congress leaders. She stops and points at one: ‘O.K. you, there, you are the CM. What's your name?’

BJP leaders would have certainly known about Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi but their relative political lightweight status would make them more beholden to the national leadership than Sushil Modi. He is, after all, a near contemporary of the prime minister. He cut his teeth politically during Emergency and the students' agitation preceding it. He was also closely allied with Nitish Kumar, and under his leadership, it would have been difficult to pull the rug from beneath the chief minister's feet if the BJP leadership decided to do so in future.

The Nitish Kumar-Sushil Modi team in their tenure consistently flagged India's federal character during the UPA years, especially on the issue surrounding the introduction of GST. The Centre since 2014 has frowned on efforts of state governments to raise federal issues as it remains committed to it primarily in name, not in spirit. Unlike in his previous terms in office, Nitish Kumar will be constrained by the absence of complete backing of his council of ministers. He, however, has no one but himself to blame for his situation. It remains up to the RJD and its leader to utilise the fault lines within the ruling edifice to secure greater support and prevent the BJP's further rise in the state.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.