With Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar playing a leading role in forging the recently floated “non- Congress, non- BJP” Third Front, the question on everyone’s mind is: what does it mean for Nitish’s future in national politics? Will his national ambitions and prospects of achieving them dwindle after the forthcoming Lok Sabha election or are the rapidly changing political equations opening up new avenues for him?
“Nitish never had any national ambitions. He does not even have a national consciousness or an understanding of the nation. Only his personal ambition matters to him,” says Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and former Member of the Bihar Legislative Council Prem Kumar Mani, who was once a close associate of Nitish. “India has seen leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the past, who excelled in regional politics and worked their way up to achieve a national stature. And now we have Narendra Modi, who seems to be following the same path. Nitish, on the other hand, has taken a reverse turn. Despite being a minister at the Centre several times, he failed to develop the qualities one expects in a national leader.”
Mani believes that ever since becoming the Bihar CM, Nitish has been engrossed in regional politics, trying to consolidate and expand his influence within the state. “Nitish often said that when a regional leader dreams of becoming the prime minister, his downfall is inevitable,” adds Mani. “He would never aspire to become the pm, but some of his colleagues have started tempting him, and that is why he seems to be taking confusing decisions of late.”
Shivanand Tiwari, once known as Nitish’s Man Friday, believes that Nitish’s political image has taken a beating in recent times. “Though some intellectuals were vouching for Nitish as PM a couple of years ago, he is no longer seen as a charismatic leader,” says Tiwari, who was recently expelled from the JD(U) for “anti-party” activities. “Today, his political credentials are certified either by himself or by his minions, which was not the case a few years ago.”
According to Tiwari, Nitish’s downfall began in 2010, a few months before the Assembly election, when he cancelled a dinner party to which he had invited senior BJP leaders. Many state leaders of the BJP had then reacted angrily to the “humiliation”. The BJP’s national executive meet was being held in Patna at that time. Advertisements showing Nitish holding hands with Modi had been splashed in local newspapers, hailing Gujarat’s assistance to Bihar following the 2008 Kosi floods. Nitish had threatened legal action for the use of his photograph without permission. He also decided to return 5 crore that the Gujarat government had provided for flood relief.
“Nitish’s actions showed that he is unsuitable for national politics,” concludes Tiwari. “He snubbed Modi and other BJP leaders, yet did not end the JD(U)- BJP alliance at that time. Had he split with the BJP then, it would have lost ground in Bihar. But Nitish could not do it as he wanted to retain power. In fact, even when he finally parted ways with the BJP, there was much regret. For a brief period, he turned to the Congress. And when the Congress failed to assuage his political ambitions, he began planning a Third Front. Is such an inconsistent leader acceptable in national politics?”
While the opinions of Mani and Tiwari on Nitish might seem too disparaging and must be seen in the context of their strained relations with the Bihar CM, the questions they raise about Nitish’s politics are also echoed by many JD(U) leaders, who refuse to come out in the open. The biggest question that troubles them is whether Nitish’s alleged hot-headedness is doing any good for the party in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. Is he destroying any chance he might have of finding a foothold in national politics? The recent churning in Bihar politics has raised several such doubts, especially within the JD(U) camp.
Ever since the JD(U) parted ways with the BJP, Nitish’s political moves have been varied and quick. But will they benefit him in the upcoming polls? Another way to assess it is to view Nitish as the only leader and the JD(U) the only party in Bihar that has not yet presented a clear political stance ahead of the election. Despite news of the Third Front taking shape, many analysts believe that the JD(U) might stage a last-minute pull out.
Currently, Nitish is lobbying with the UPA government at the Centre to get special category status for Bihar on the basis of the Raghuram Rajan Committee report, which suggests ways to identify indicators of the relative backwardness of states. Political observers say that the campaign could be aimed at keeping open the option of an alliance with the Congress. With the model code of conduct coming into effect on 5 March, Nitish could well use it as an excuse to ally with the Congress later. “The Third Front may not last. Nitish can walk out of it any minute,” says Tiwari. “Anyone who has followed Nitish’s politics closely knows that over the past 30 years, he has carved out the image of an inconsistent politician for himself. Neither does he maintain a clear stand nor does he keep an ally for a long time.”
Nitish was once considered the right-hand man of RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav. Breaking up with him, he co-founded the Samata Party with George Fernandes in 1994 and entered into an alliance with the ultra-Left CPI(ML). Following the Samata Party’s dismal performance in the 1995 Bihar Assembly election and the bypolls the year after, Nitish broke ties with the CPI(ML) and joined hands with the BJP. In 2000, he came to power in Bihar with the BJP’s support, but the government lasted only seven days.
Nitish did not utter a word against the Modi-led government of Gujarat when the state was ravaged by riots in 2002. He was the railway minister at that time, a post he held from 2001 to 2004.
In the 2005 Assembly election, Nitish rode back to power in Bihar and formed the government in alliance with the BJP. In the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, he reportedly gave a clean chit to Modi on the question of the Gujarat riots by saying that it was not right to bring up that issue again and again. In that election, the BJP-JD(U) alliance won 32 out of 40 seats in Bihar. Twenty of those seats went to the JD(U) and the rest to the BJP.
But only a year later, Nitish probably realised the necessity to plan a new strategy to continue enjoying power in the state. So, he began his campaign against Modi while still being in alliance with the BJP. The plan worked and he successfully made inroads in the RJD’s Muslim vote-bank. After bagging a good number of seats in the 2010 Assembly election, Nitish fixed his sight on the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Political observers say that he planned to part ways with the BJP in order to wash away the taint of communalism and shore up his image as a “secular” national leader.
Nitish was the first among the BJP’s allies to openly come out against the proposal to make Modi the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. When his opposition went unheeded, he ended the JD(U)’s alliance with the BJP. To save his government in Bihar, he instantly accepted support from the CPI and the Congress.
Indeed, Nitish is well-known for practising politics with alternating support from two opposite poles. He is adept at shifting alliances from the Left to the Right of the ideological spectrum — and vice versa. But ever since his latest spat with the BJP, the JD(U) has remained clueless about the way forward. He knows that playing the secularism card might not be a good idea, after all, and so, he is focussing more on the issue of special status for Bihar. For this reason, he refuses to clarify his stand on the Congress as it still offers hope of damage control for the JD(U) after its separation from the BJP. Insiders say that if the Congress assures Nitish that it will grant special status to Bihar on being returned back to power, he could well use that as an excuse to ally with the grand old party.
Nitish was also seen lauding Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Ram Vilas Paswan and trying to lure him into joining his campaign against Modi. It was also an attempt to woo the Mahadalit community of the Paswans, who comprise 4 percent of Bihar’s electorate. But Nitish’s efforts were in vain as the LJP leader turned out to be politically far shrewder than he had imagined.
After opposing Modi for a long time, Paswan suddenly took a U-turn and joined hands with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for the Lok Sabha election. “This is in tune with Paswan’s political character. Only he can take such a step,” Nitish reportedly commented. Responding to this, LJP spokesperson Rohit Singh said, “Today, Nitish is pointing fingers at Paswan’s political character, while a few days ago he was eager to join hands with him.”
Recently, Nitish’s brand of politics was brought to the dock when his party was accused of poaching 13 MLAs from the RJD. While a minimum of 15 members were required to form a separate group, according to the constitutional rules regarding such cases, Speaker Uday Narayan Chaudhary granted recognition to the 13 rebel members as a separate group. However, Lalu lost no time in taking charge of the situation and brought back nine of the MLAs to the RJD fold. He lost four MLAs, but the more severe blow was dealt to Nitish’s reputation.
Though Nitish had initially denied the allegations of trying to poach RJD MLAs, he later issued a statement asking, “Lalu has always been practising such manipulative politics, so what upsets him now?” Former Rajya Sabha MP and JD(U) leader Shabir Ali also reportedly commented, “Every party wants more power. What’s wrong if we do too?”
However, there are few takers for the JD(U)’s defence in the MLA poaching case. “If Nitish says he is just following in Lalu’s footsteps, then he would be willing to resort to any means to achieve his political ends, just as Lalu has been doing,” says Mani.
Allegations like these might end up seriously hurting the JD(U)’s prospects in the Lok Sabha election. In recent years, several myths that Nitish had woven around his image have already been shattered. As speculation over a possible alliance with the Congress is doing the rounds, JD(U) leaders come across as a worried lot. “Nitish has turned us into a pendulum,” says a senior JD(U) leader. “Sometimes he tells us to support the Congress, and then he hints that we should oppose it. With the polls just a month away, if we join hands with the Congress now, won’t the people see us as opportunists?” The same concern is voiced by many other leaders of Nitish’s party. “Just as Paswan took a sudden U-turn on Modi, will Nitish do the same with the Congress? And will the people accept it?” asks another leader.
While the JD(U) holds 20 seats in the current Lok Sabha, recent opinion polls reveal a sharp decline in Nitish’s credibility within Bihar and predict that his party may not win that many seats in the forthcoming polls. After splitting with the BJP, Nitish is increasingly being seen as a leader whose party is not firmly behind him.
In the past eight years, Nitish has not let the party stand on its own in Bihar. Even within the party, no leader dares to speak up without Nitish’s permission. Without a properly functioning party structure, he will face a lot of challenges in the forthcoming election.
Nitish is also accused of not taking the counsel of other party leaders seriously. Even though Sharad Yadav is the national president of the party, the final word always comes from Nitish. In fact, Yadav is seen as someone who speaks only when Nitish asks him to, or else, at the other extreme, with an intention of debunking him. For instance, when Nitish was pressing the NDA to announce its prime ministerial candidate, Yadav said there was no need for such an announcement. But the JD(U) president had to withdraw his statement later.
Again, a day after the BJP-JD(U) split, while Nitish termed it a bold political step, Yadav said that if the BJP projected LK Advani as the PM candidate instead of Modi, the party would not mind supporting it.
Several other JD(U) leaders have been critical of Nitish, but they have had to pay a heavy price for their outspokenness. Besides Tiwari, who was a Rajya Sabha MP, the party has also expelled four Lok Sabha MPs — Captain Jai Narain Nishad (from Muzaffarpur), Purnmasi Ram (Gopalganj), Sushil Kumar Singh (Aurangabad) and Mangani Lal Mandal (Jhanjharpur) — for being vocal in opposing Nitish. Moreover, several leaders have already deserted Nitish, including a former close associate, Devesh Chandra Thakur. And on 4 February, Parveen Amanullah, who was the social welfare minister in Nitish’s Cabinet, resigned her post and walked out of the party to join the Aam Aadmi Party. Daughter of former Lok Sabha MP Syed Shahabuddin, a prominent Muslim leader, Parveen had been instrumental in consolidating a significant chunk of Muslim votes for the JD(U) and was generally accepted as the liberal face of the party. She is now questioning Nitish’s political credentials.
“Nitish has dug his own grave by attempting to appease the Muslims,” says Tiwari. “He lured two Muslim MLAs from the RJD and the sole Muslim MLA from the LJP, Shabir Ali, to join him. But Ali joined him in the hope of getting a Rajya Sabha ticket, which he was denied. He can ditch Nitish any time. Monazir Hassan, MP from Begusarai, is the sole minority representative of the JD(U), yet Nitish seems eager to hand over the constituency to the CPI in order to cement his ties with the Left parties.”
It seems the JD(U) and the BJP are in for a face-off in the Lok Sabha polls. Who will have the upper hand is difficult to predict. In 2010, when the JD(U) and the BJP had joined hands for the Bihar Assembly election, the JD(U) managed to get a vote share of 22.61 percent — 2.15 percent more than the previous election. The BJP’s vote share had also gone up by 0.81 percent, with the saffron party getting 16.48 percent of the votes. On the other hand, the RJD’s vote share was 18.84 percent — a decline of 4.61 percent. While the JD(U) contested 141 of the 243 seats in the Bihar Assembly and won 115 of them, the BJP fielded candidates in 102 seats and won 91. Clearly, the alliance with the JD(U) had helped the BJP make a big leap in its electoral performance in Bihar, while the former also made significant gains.
To put this in context, let’s take a look at Bihar’s political history. In 1995, the Samata Party allied with the CPI, but could not even reach double figures. A year later, it tied up with the BJP and got better results. In the two Assembly elections held in February and October-November 2005, the two parties again contested together, and as a result, Lalu’s party got a serious drubbing.
The BJP had shown a steadily improving performance in Bihar polls before Jharkhand was carved out of the state in November 2000. In 1990, the BJP had contested 237 of the 324 seats in undivided Bihar. With 11.61 percent votes, it secured 39 seats. In 1995, the vote share went up to 12.96 percent and the number of seats increased to 41. In the 2000 Assembly polls, the BJP fielded candidates in 167 constituencies and won 67 with 14.64 percent votes. The BJP had a strong foothold in the southern parts of undivided Bihar. And even after the formation of Jharkhand, the party managed to get 15.65 percent votes in the Bihar Assembly election in October 2005, winning 55 seats.
As far as Lok Sabha seats are concerned, the JD(U) holds 20 out of 40 seats in Bihar. The BJP is also in a strong position with 12 seats. In the 17-year history of the JD(U)-BJP alliance, it had always been difficult to assess which party had the upper edge. And now, with the two former partners gearing up for a tough contest, it’s going to be major challenge for Nitish. He cannot continue targeting the BJP beyond a point.
If Nitish accuses Modi’s party of communalism, questions will be raised on his own past willingness to continue the alliance with the BJP for so long. Cadres of the BJP are already circulating video clips that show Nitish extolling Modi for his development model. He cannot criticise the BJP on the issue of development since fingers will be pointed at him too. Since Nitish’s party has a number of upper-caste leaders, he cannot risk slamming the BJP for being an upper-caste party. In fact, Nitish is actively involved in wooing the upper castes to support him in the upcoming election.
If Nitish tries to appease the Muslims, that could alienate his core votebank. Besides polarising the Hindu vote, the BJP’s campaign also aims at establishing Modi as a leader of the backward castes, which will find some traction in Bihar’s caste-ridden politics. Addressing a rally at Muzaffarpur, Modi recently said that the BJP was no longer a party of the upper castes, but also of the backward classes.
Indeed, the BJP is doing all it can to drive a wedge into Nitish’s votebank. The extreme backward caste voters play a major role in Bihar politics. By portraying Modi as belonging to the backward castes, the BJP is hoping for a fruitful outcome. The upper castes constitute 12 percent of Bihar’s electorate, while Nitish’s Kurmi base comprises 2.4 percent. Among the backward castes, the Keoris are 4 percent and the Yadavs 11 percent. Dalits constitute 15 percent of the voting population, while the Muslims make up 16.5 percent. Tribals comprise an insignificant 1 percent. The rest — around 40 percent — are the extreme backward castes, which include 119 castes. In the previous elections, Nitish had gained the most electorally from the extreme backward castes, by distinguishing them from the other backward castes in framing his government’s welfare policies. But they are now miffed with Nitish on issues like the concentration of power in the hands of the upper castes and the continuing dominance of the other backward castes in the allocation of contracts and leases.
After his break-up with the BJP, Nitish could be staring at a lonely battle with only a handful of Kurmi voters on his side. Over the past few years, the BJP has managed to get the support of the upper caste voters, who used to vote for the Congress in the past. The alliance with the LJP will help the BJP bag the Dalit votes as well. And having roped in the support of prominent OBC leader Upendra Kushwaha, the BJP hopes to smash the Koeri-Kurmi social coalition that forms the backbone of Nitish’s votebank. With the Yadav voters likely to stay with Lalu’s party, Nitish is desperate to somehow woo the extremely backward, Mahadalit and Muslim voters, but it is not going to be an easy task in the current scenario.
Against the backdrop of this new churning in Bihar politics, Nitish’s options have become extremely limited. He called for a bandh on 2 March to demand special category status for Bihar. But his detractors are asking why his record of governance is missing from his electoral agenda.
If the JD(U) fails to perform well in Nitish’s own state, his political career at the national level will suffer a major setback.His campaign is yet to find a clear direction. In Bihar’s politics, Nitish is known for betraying one and all. He has repeatedly changed his political partners and experimented with parties on both ends of the ideological spectrum — from the BJP to the CPI(ML). Even in his latest alliance, the Third Front, doubts are bound to crop up over whether he will allow any of the other leaders to stand beside him.
“Politics is a game of possibilities,” says political analyst Mahendra Suman. “The satraps of the regional parties see themselves as kingmakers.” All the parties are aware of Nitish’s shrewd politics and would be willing to act as shrewdly. Having staked his political future on the Lok Sabha election, Nitish will be walking a precarious tightrope.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman
The dark horse in the mix
If the BJP is unable to form the next government at the Centre, Nitish Kumar might get to play a national role, says Raghavendra
In public meetings these days, Nitish Kumar’s worries have become apparent. The Bihar CM believes that in order to stay in power in the state, his party will have to perform well in the forthcoming General Election. But it seems doubtful in view of the current political equations in Bihar. Nitish, however, seems determined to reverse the gloomy state of affairs, taking each step cautiously.
By cutting off ties with the BJP, Nitish has proved his secular credentials. He is trying to showcase himself as a serious national leader with development and secularism as his main agenda. He was instrumental in forging the Third Front, which includes the Janata Dal (Secular), the Samajwadi Party and the Left parties, among others. Bihar stands to gain if an alliance like the Third Front comes to power at the Centre. Since Nitish has served as a Union minister, he understands that running a state government is difficult without the Centre’s assistance.
However, the idea of social justice could prove to a hurdle for Nitish in the scramble for power at the Centre. This agenda has nurtured Lalu’s political ambitions. Today, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s politics of social justice has provided him the opportunity to lobby at the Centre. But, while Nitish propagated “good governance”, the idea of social justice was given a short shrift. And the proponents of Nitishonomics are unable to sell Nitish’s governance model.
Nitish gave Bihar a facelift, improving its economic and social indices. But the JD(U) cannot cash in on these achievements at the national level, while Narendra Modi is better at selling the Gujarat model. Bihar’s internal politics is a major hurdle. In Gujarat, when Modi lauds his own development model, even his opponents in the state do not challenge him. But when Nitish does it, either the BJP or the Congress jumps in to take the credit, and the Bihar CM is denied his due.
However, it is still too early to write off Nitish. What if Modi’s BJP, despite all the hype, fails to win 150 seats in the Lok Sabha and the Congress is restricted to 100? That would open the field for the regional and Left parties. As Mamata Banerjee will be dead against the CPM’s Prakash Karat and Mayawati won’t accept Mulayam, the only two leaders on whom there could be a consensus will be Nitish and Naveen Patnaik. But this would be contingent upon the JD(U)’s performance in the Lok Sabha polls.
The writer is a Patna-based journalist. Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman