From Friend to Foe to Friend Again, the Modi-Nitish Bond Is a Suspension of Political Morality


When he harboured ambitions of being the opposition’s key to power at the Centre, Nitish Kumar made many a scathing comment against the BJP and its allies.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Back in 2013, in a decision he portrayed as “principled,” Nitish Kumar left the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) when the BJP declared Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections. Modi, according to Nitish at that time, embodied the worst forms of communalism and sectarianism in Indian polity.

After a humiliating defeat in the general polls, the subsequent “masterstroke” of striking an alliance with his age-old political rival Lalu Prasad Yadav for the 2015 assembly polls and after almost two years of being at the helm of a mahagathbandhan government, Nitish broke away, only to go back to where he was before.

Less than 24 hours after resigning as chief minister, Nitish swiftly rekindled his lost love for the BJP to form a new government in Bihar with the saffron party’s support.

Nitish portrayed his political divorce with Lalu as yet another “principled” position, saying that he was no longer comfortable being in government with the scam-tainted Yadav family.

Although Nitish’s conscience changed direction in a matter of three years, this time against Lalu and his kin, Modi is no longer just a prime ministerial candidate, he has, in fact, transformed into a mega-leader who occupies particular significance in the BJP’s history.

One may well say that Nitish may be resigned to the present political realities and now seeks to navigate the realpolitkal scenario in the most prudent way possible. Yet, some would add that his ‘conscience calls’ are a smart mix of his natural instincts for self-preservation and the tendency to remain proximal to power corridors.

After all, despite all his ideological posturing in the last few years, he has remained seated on the chief minister’s chair since 2005, except for a brief period when he handed over the reins to a party man, Jitan Ram Manjhi, who he thought would walk his talk.

Again, by handing over the reins to Manjhi, a Mahadalit, Nitish claimed to have taken “moral responsibility” for the defeat in 2014.

Surrendering power to a Mahadalit, Nitish, who had only recently come out of a 17-year alliance with the saffron front, had imagined that it would cement his place as a leader born out of social justice politics. However, Manjhi asserted himself too much for Nitish’s comfort. Not much after the conscience call that had prodded him to resign from the chief minister’s post, Nitish engineered yet another coup to oust Manjhi, profusely apologising to the people for having resigned earlier.

The many criticisms of right-wing Hindutva politics

Ahead of the 2015 assembly elections, despite the fact that the RJD and the Congress played pivotal roles in forging an alliance with Nitish’s Janata Dal (United), he was the one who transformed into an icon who espoused values like secularism, good governance and a corruption-free polity over petty interests. Nitish lived up to this carefully-cultivated image while appearing to steer the mahagathbandhan government, championing the social justice ideals of backward class politics and intermittently taking digs at the alleged double-standards of the Hindutva parivar.

At a seminar titled ‘Advantage Conclave’ in April last year, Nitish had declared the need for the opposition to come together to have a “Sangh-mukt Bharat”.

Ab aisi paristhiti me, aaj seedhe do dhuree hogi. BJP ek taraf hai, aur doosri taraf sab logon ko milna padega, warna alag-alag rahenge to alag-alag yeh sabka bura haal kar denge. Ye sab ko ekatrit hona hoga… Ek baar Lohiaji ne gair Congresswaad ki baat ki thi. Aaj wahi daur aa gaya hai jab aapko gair Sanghwaad karna padega. Iske liye sabko ekjut khada hona hoga. Sangh-Mukt Bharat banane ke liye sabhi gair BJP party ko ek hona hoga (In the current situation, there will be two axes of power. On the one hand is the BJP and on the other, everybody will have to join hands. Otherwise, if we remain separate, they (BJP) will create problems for everyone. All will have to come together… At one time, Lohiaji had talked about anti-Congressism. Today, the time has come when you will have to talk about anti-RSSism. All will have to join hands for this. All non-BJP parties will have to join hands for an RSS-free India),” he said at the conclave.

His now-famous call for a Sangh-mukt Bharat, which he repeated many times through the last year, elevated his image as an opposition leader further, leading to many eminent persons, including historian Ramachandra Guha, mooting the idea of having him as the face of opposition.

Nitish never indicated that he was sailing on two boats. Rather, he played to the gallery according to political conveniences, stressing the need for greater opposition unity. Before he declared his support for the NDA presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, Nitish was the one who convinced the opposition to put up a formidable candidate against the NDA.

In yet another speech, he put the RSS in the line of attack: “RSS is like the Supreme Court for BJP. BJP talks about development, but does the politics of dividing… be it in the name of caste or religion.”

In this brief period of consistency, Nitish, well known to be a tactical speaker, took the anti-BJP forces almost by surprise.

In the last one year, Nitish was fierce in his criticism of the rising incidents of cow vigilantism. “On my way to Kanpur, I saw many stray cows. Instead of beating up people, volunteers should take care of cows. RSS should open shakhas for cows and neelgai (blue bull),” he said at a rally in Uttar Pradesh. He also said that BJP leaders should lead by example and stop wearing leather chappals and using other leather products if they are serious about cow protection.

At the same rally, he took a potshot at Modi. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Uttar Pradesh saying he had come on the call of ‘Maa Ganga’. I was in Varanasi recently and I didn’t find any change in the historical city. People openly told me ‘Maa Ganga ab Modiji ko dhoondh rahi hain (Mother Ganga is now looking for Modi)’,” he said.

In yet another dig at Modi, a few days after his split from the NDA in 2013, Nitish, while asserting the need for political parties to take everyone along, had said, “Kabhi topi bhi pehenni padhegi, kabhi tilak bhi lagana padega (Sometimes you will have to wear a cap, and sometimes you will have to put tilak).” His remark was seen as a response to Modi’s refusal to wear a skull cap given to him by a Muslim cleric at a function.

Quiet in the face of attacks

As part of the mahagathbandhan, Nitish repeated in his speeches that his party is the only front which can ensure a Sangh-mukt Bharat. However, as he was making these statements, the other constituents of the grand alliance were at the receiving end of motivated political attacks. Ever since his government came to power, the BJP left no stone unturned in raising allegations against the RJD in Bihar and the Congress nationally.

Within one month of his government coming to power, Nitish’s current deputy Sushil Kumar Modi organised numerous press conferences to declare that Bihar had gone back to the days of what it termed ‘jangal raaj‘, a sly reference to the days when the RJD was in power. It told the media that crime rates had gone up and nothing in the state was running smoothly. Charges of lawlessness and corruption became the central points on which the BJP attacked the state government.

However, Nitish, the chief minister and also the state home minister, didn’t come up with the slightest explanation against these allegations, even as Lalu and other RJD leaders put up a brave front, defending not only the mahagathbandhan government but also Nitish’s governance.

Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. Credit: Reuters

Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav. Credit: Reuters

His conspicuous silence ensured that the RJD had to take much of the blame in whatever wrongs the BJP alleged. One may ask why it was not imperative for the chief minister to defend his own government at a time when his allies faced what were largely unsubstantiated allegations and whether it was fit for a leader like Nitish to put his allies on the line while efforts were made to discredit his government.

After all, Nitish, during his tenure as chief minister, did not get any conscience calls when he continued to patronise bahubali leader from his party Anant Singh, with a known criminal background, accused of many murders, or extended his support to Anand Mohan, who is a convict in the infamous lynching of Gopalganj district magistrate G. Krishnaiyyah.

How can he pretend, then, that he is deserting the grand alliance because Lalu and his family did not come clean on the allegations of corruption?

One may remember that Nitish, as a cabinet minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, did not relinquish his chair when the anti-Muslim riots of 2002 were engineered in Gujarat under Modi’s state government.

In all these years, Nitish has successfully managed support from different ideological fronts at various political junctures. After he successfully formed the government with BJP on July 27, one of the personality traits that emerged clearly is that he understood the rough political terrain and diverse interests of various political parties well and almost always found his own middle path.

As an opposition leader, Nitish was under the delusion that he could become the prime minister one day. However, the wily politician, perhaps, sensed early that the opposition is in too much disarray for him to harbour such an ambition. It definitely looks as though Nitish’s exit from the alliance was premeditated.

In the chessboard that Bihar politics has become, devoid of ethos, everyone wanted to make a smart move. As Nitish renewed his friendship with the BJP to regain power, he betrayed the political verdict of the 2015 assembly elections. In effect, this amounts to a most corrupt suspension of political morality, even as one sets aside the opportunism of it all. One can only recall that Nitish made a compromise when he joined the grand alliance. But why was Lalu not scam-tainted then and why is Modi not communal now is only for Nitish to tell.

The article originally appeared in The Wire India 27/07/2017