On a Downward Spiral

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Photo: Krishna Murari Kishan
Photo: Krishna Murari Kishan

Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar, takes centre-stage yet again, as a political drama unfolds in the state ahead of the Assembly election. Once Bihar’s most celebrated political figure, Nitish is now battling for political survival. Despite his decision to step down as CM after the embarrassment of 2014 Lok Sabha polls and make way for Jitan Ram Manjhi, it is popularly believed that no one can step into Nitish’s shoes. This might give him an edge in the upcoming polls, but a bigger question remains: even if he succeeds in his pursuit of a third consecutive term, would he return as the leader whose political vision once had the power to transform the very idea of Bihar; a politician in whom the glimpse of a statesman was once witnessed? With Lalu Prasad Yadav as an ally now, it is going to be a face-off between Nitish and his own former self. The way Nitish Kumar’s politics crumbled after severing ties with the BJP, it appears that his ten-year-old reign in Bihar was a sham based on a weak foundation. Let us analyse where things went wrong for Nitish.

JD(U) versus BJP

Nitish belongs to the socialist strain of politics. He was with Lalu for several years but after gaining a solid political footing, he competed against the same person who had nurtured his political career. To establish his own identity against the former big-shot of Bihar, Nitish initially allied with the Communist Party of India-Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) but when it didn’t work out, he immediately took a huge leap to the extreme right and switched to the BJP at a time when the latter was yet an outcast in the political landscape. Accused of communal politics, the party bore the taint of Babri Masjid demolition and the Godhra riots. Throughout the alliance, Nitish maintained a love hate relationship with the BJP– love for the alliance, hate for Narendra Modi. In 2010, furious over an ad by the BJP showing Modi and Nitish holding hands, he cancelled a dinner he had hosted for BJP leaders after which the alliance briefly ran into trouble. A former Janata Dal- United JD (U)) leader Shivanand Tiwari says that cancelling the dinner was a mistake which made Nitish look like an arrogant leader. According to Tiwari, such an incident should be enough to sever any alliance, but it did not. Meanwhile, the BJP strategised its expansion in the state and swept a massive 91 out of 102 Assembly seats in 2010 as against 115 of 141 for the JD (U). The writing was clearly on the wall for Nitish. His decision to terminate the alliance with the BJP over Modi’s PM candidature was the final nail in his political coffin and the results of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections proved it.

The Manjhi Experiment

Bearing moral responsibility for the debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Nitish resigned from his post as chief minister of Bihar and made Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit, his successor. The experiment, a bold one at that, was widely hailed but was done without taking many things into consideration. For instance, the fact that Manjhi has been an opportunist all along was overlooked. Once in office, Manjhi refused to toe the party’s line. So, the experiment backfired badly for Nitish as he watched in silence while his supporters indulged in mudslinging to malign Manjhi. While, on the one hand, Nitish bore the brunt for his decision to quit as chief minister, he was also seen as someone who could not accept the leadership of a Mahadalit.

Going back to Lalu

The brouhaha over the Nitish-Lalu tie up is needless given the long history of such unexpected U-turns by political parties including the BJP. Nitish Kumar is well aware that another electoral defeat will prove fatal for his political career. In a bid to take on the BJP, which has emerged quite strongly in Bihar, he persuaded Lalu for an alliance endangering his own credibility as a popular leader. Sharing the dais with a former detractor yet again proved to be his undoing. Another major challenge for the duo would be to get the caste arithmetic right. Manjhi’s announcement to support the nda is expected to dent the vote bank of the secular RJD-JD(U)  combine. The lack of a Muslim face or even a woman candidate has also sent out negative vibes. However, Nitish Kumar is completely banking on Lalu to consolidate the sizeable Muslim votebank in the state.

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