Nitish stayed silent on communal clashes in Bihar, didn’t act against BJP-linked suspects. It’s a far cry from the time he was touted as Modi’s worthy opponent.
New Delhi: There was a time when Nitish Kumar was touted as the opposition’s candidate to take on the might of Narendra Modi and the BJP at the Centre. Today, even his own stature as Bihar chief minister lies in tatters.
In the last fortnight, a series of communal clashes have been reported from different parts of Bihar. In some cases, BJP leaders are alleged to have instigated these incidents through their statements – Arjit Shashwat, son of union minister Ashwini Choubey, is one of the main suspects in Bhagalpur.
What’s more, despite an FIR and an arrest warrant against Shashwat, the state government didn’t arrest him. In fact, he openly roamed the streets of Patna and even did a Facebook Live video challenging Nitish to arrest him. Choubey also backed his son to the hilt, even saying he was “proud” of what he had done.
But CM Nitish remained largely silent – he did speak once, but without naming the BJP or the leaders who made communal statements.
“I will neither compromise with corruption nor support any divisive politics,” he said on 19 March during his weekly press briefing.
Shashwat finally surrendered on 31 March, when the Patna High Court rejected his anticipatory bail.
Tejashwi Yadav, the leader of the opposition, was quick to take a dig at Nitish. “Total administrative failure of Nitish Ji. His police even can’t arrest a criminal. He surrenders himself. Before calling police, he briefs Media. Law & order is totally finished in Bihar. That’s Sushasan cum Kursi Babu for you,” he tweeted.
Rise and fall
In November 2015, when the JD(U)-RJD-Congress grand alliance registered an emphatic win over the BJP and its allies in Bihar, opposition parties across the country saw it as the first step towards defeat Modi in 2019. Nitish’s stature as a leader grew manifold, as the campaign saw a direct battle between Modi and Nitish. In fact, Nitish had broken his years-old alliance with the BJP when Modi was announced as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
The JD(U) chief became the poster boy for the opposition, and even Congress leaders privately accepted his national role.
However, things changed in July last year when the JD(U) broke away from the grand alliance and joined hands once again with the Modi and Amit Shah-led BJP.
“This is a decision taken in the interest of Bihar. After a long time, there would be a same coalition government in the Centre and Bihar. This will pave the way for various development projects,” Nitish had said at that time.
Eight months later, there’s no sign of bonhomie between the two leaders. Nitish seems to be a pale shadow of himself; his ‘Sushasan Babu’ (the good governance man) image lies in tatters because of the deteriorating law and order situation.
Until the UP elections last year, Nitish was trying to bring together all the opposition parties against the BJP. He was someone acceptable to all – from Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress in the east to Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party in the north. But his flip-flop has cost him big time, in terms of public perception.
“Nitish settled for small gains. He was not ready to sacrifice power in the state for a larger national role,” said N.K. Choudhary, professor at Patna University.
Tejashwi, son of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish’s deputy in the grand alliance government, spares no opportunity to remind him of his ‘non-negotiable’ stand on corruption, secularism and governance. Also, when the TDP decided to quit the NDA over its unfulfilled demand for special status to Andhra Pradesh, Tejashwi was quick to remind Nitish that he should follow the TDP, as special status for Bihar has been a long-pending demand.
Nitish finally had to address the issue at his 19 March briefing: “I have been raising the demand for special status for the last 13 years. We will raise the issue once again before the 15th Finance Commission.”
Manoj Jha, RJD spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP, said: “Usually in a democracy, the voters write a leader’s political obituary. But Nitish Kumar has written his political obituary all by himself. Today it is BJP vs RJD in Bihar; his party is nowhere in the picture.”
Tejashwi added: “Nitish Kumar’s government in being run from Nagpur (RSS headquarters) and Delhi. He is just a puppet in the hands of PM Modi and the RSS.”
Cutting Nitish to size
In his two previous terms as NDA chief minister, Nitish was the ‘high command’ who would drive the alliance, and wouldn’t accept any interference by the BJP. Today, he has virtually no control over the government, thanks to the strong BJP at the Centre. The BJP itself doesn’t spare any opportunity to prove that the JD(U) is now its junior partner.
On 3 September last year, when a cabinet reshuffle took place at the Centre, JD(U) was not even invited for the ceremony, despite talk of one or two of its MPs taking becoming ministers.
“We have given fair representation to BJP in Bihar’s cabinet, including a deputy chief minister and some key portfolios, despite their numbers being less than ours,” said K.C. Tyagi, senior JD(U) leader. “In return, we didn’t get anything at the Centre.”
Flood relief cheque
A few days later, the Gujarat government donated a cheque of Rs 5 crore to Nitish Kumar at his residence for flood relief. The same thing had happened in 2010, when Modi was CM, but Nitish had rejected the cheque and even cancelled a dinner of top BJP leaders, who were in Patna for the party’s national executive. This time, he just said: “In the time of calamity, everybody should display sensitivity and extend a helping hand to the victims.”
On 14 October, PM Modi visited Patna University to attend the centenary celebrations of the university. This was his first visit since Nitish rejoined the NDA, and a lot was expected of the visit. In his speech, Nitish Kumar pleaded with folded hands to make it a central university, but the PM turned down the request, saying it should aim to be a global-level institution. Nitish was visibly uncomfortable, but stayed silent.
Power ministers’ conference
On 10 and 11 November, a conference of state power ministers was scheduled to take place in Rajgir, Bihar. Since Bihar was hosting such an event for the first time, it made grand preparations.
R.K. Singh, union minister of state (independent charge) for power, was supposed to inaugurate the event, but just a day before, on the afternoon of 9 November, the Bihar government was informed that the event was cancelled, because Singh needed to attend a ministers’ meeting on 10 November.
The cancellation came as a huge embarrassment for the Bihar government. Several power ministers from different states had already reached Patna, as had power ministry officials, while some were in transit. Singer Sonu Nigam, who was booked to perform at the Rajgir event, was instead asked to perform for the dignitaries who had arrived in Patna itself.
Nitish had expressed his displeasure over the incident. “I think making the announcement of the cancellation at the last moment was impractical. It caused embarrassment,” he said.
Sources in JD(U) told ThePrint that Nitish had planned to make a 45-minute presentation about how he improved the power situation in Bihar, and how the Centre and other states were adopting his model. This was something BJP was not willing to give credit to Nitish for, and the sources said this was one of the possible reasons for the cancellation.
Then came the battle for supremacy over the appointment of a new DGP in February this year. While Nitish wanted to appoint Ravindra Kumar, the BJP suggested the name of K.S. Dwivedi. The latter was SP of Bhagalpur in 1989 when communal riots took place, and since then, he has never got a ‘valuable’ posting.
Despite Nitish’s objections, the BJP convinced him to appoint Dwivedi, saying the 1984 batch officer would retire in January next year, before the elections. However, the decision drew so much flak that state home secretary Amir Subhani had to issue a clarification.
The defeat of the JD(U) candidate in the Jehanabad assembly bypoll in March further strained the ties between the parties. It had been won by the RJD as part of the grand alliance in 2015; however, being a constituency dominated by upper caste Bhumihars, Yadavs and OBCs, the BJP offered this seat to Nitish owing to caste considerations.
“The defeat created a sense that Nitish is losing his clout among the non-Yadav OBCs,” said a JD(U) MLA. “The BJP might be in trouble if OBCs, Dalits and minorities consolidate, like in the bypolls. So, it has now switched back to its own agenda of polarisation.”
JD(U) leaders also accept the fact that coordination between the two partners is at its lowest point.
“Even at the Centre, I don’t remember any coordination meeting of NDA partners in recent times,” said JD(U) leader Tyagi.
Options before Nitish
In Bihar’s caste-riddled polity, Nitish is the only leader who doesn’t have a significant, loyal caste vote. His own community, the Kurmis, are not a sizeable chunk of the voting populace, and are only significant in Nalanda and nearby areas. This is why he has always had to piggyback on parties like the BJP and the RJD to be in power. That’s why he has cultivated a ‘Sushasan Babu’ or ‘Vikas Purush’ (Man of Development) image – it makes him earn votes from all castes.
Some JD(U) leaders say if he’s troubled further, Nitish might even perform another flip-flop and pull out of the NDA again, and then form or join a third front.
In the last week, Nitish has met Ram Vilas Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha, fellow NDA members from Bihar. Indications are that the JD(U), Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party and Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) are trying to form a united front within the NDA to try and put some pressure on the BJP.
In 2014, when the JD(U) contested the Lok Sabha polls independently, it got 16 per cent of the vote and won two seats. Adding the LJP’s six per cent and the RLSP’s three per cent votes would take Nitish close to the BJP’s 25 per cent figure from the 2015 assembly polls.
But Nitish’s own 16 per cent is a thing of the past, say experts.
“Nitish commanded respect in the minority sections too. With the current round of communal violence, he has lost that constituency. He is getting marginalised every day,” said Prof. Choudhary of Patna University.
Nitish knows this very well. On 31 March, he visited a shrine in Patna wearing a skullcap to offer prayers for peace and harmony in the state.
Things could get worse closer to the 2019 general elections. “Better coordination is needed before it’s too late,” admitted Tyagi.
But even now, some JD(U) MLAs are reportedly in talks with other parties. If that is the case, hard times may have just begun for Nitish Kumar.
The article appeared in the Print India on 2/4/2018