Nitish Kumar: Down but not out

After 17 years as Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar may look vulnerable, jaded and lost. But while he is down, he is not out of the game and could still spring a surprise

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar
Bihar CM Nitish Kumar

Nalin Verma

In his first term as chief minister Nitish Kumar invited the ‘Janata’ to meet him. He himself would camp in different parts of the state to hear grievances. But in 2022 he seems to be a different person, a pale shadow of his old self, his temper on a short fuse and looking more vulnerable than ever.

Telling videos of his police scuffling with activist Yogita Bhavna, who wanted to meet the CM with the father of an eight-year-old victim of abduction and rape, went viral last week. She wanted an appointment but the police misbehaved with her and admonished her to behave like a woman while denying her entry into the CM’s residence.

Videos of a visibly irate chief minister lecturing the Speaker of the Assembly to look up the Constitution also went viral. It was unusual to say the least. Responding to a short notice question on action taken in Lakhisarai following a spate of murders, the Speaker ‘postponed’ the question following unsatisfactory answers by a minister. The Chief Minister, who happens to be the home minister, was not in the House but in his chamber in the Assembly.

But the CM rushed to the House following the Speaker’s decision and reminded the Chair that police were answerable to the court and not to the Assembly. While he appeared to be stalling the demand for action against a police officer in the district, the very next day the government transferred the officer in question while both the Speaker and the Chief Minister skipped the budget session of the Assembly that day.

Has he lost the plot? The man who had imperiously cancelled his own dinner invitation to the then Gujarat chief minister in 2009, who parted company with the BJP in 2013 on the question of Narendra Modi being projected as NDA’s PM candidate, looks like an old lion in winter, helpless, cornered and dazed.

His boast of good administration increasingly sounds hollow as law and-order spins out of control; and he fuelled speculation by appearing to suggest that he wanted to go to the Rajya Sabha. Media reports to that effect were rubbished the very next day but the damage was done. The chief minister, his critics were quick to say, was looking for a scape route and would be happy now to be a Member of the Rajya Sabha, possibly as the Vice President, who is the ex-officio chairman of the Rajya Sabha.

The term of the President of India Ram Nath Kovind ends in July this year and that of the Vice President Venkaiah Naidu in August. But while nothing stops the Union Government from allowing them a second term, speculation has been rife about their successors. While several RSS leaders and Governors occupying Raj Bhavans in the states are in the race, Nitish Kumar appears to have little or no chance of getting the coveted nomination.

BJP in Bihar gains nothing by removing Nitish Kumar from the scene. The party is already calling the shots, defying the chief minister and is in the driver’s seat. It will be tempting to blame the chief minister for misgovernance while taking credit for whatever is good. Having a new chief minister from the BJP for the rest of the life of the Assembly would be counter-productive. BJP would rather wait to make a clean sweep in the next election when Nitish Kumar will almost certainly not be the chief ministerial face.

BJP has 77 MLAs against JDU’s 43 members in the Assembly. Nitish Kumar is clearly a lame duck chief minister who has lost interest in the state. Governance has slipped far below the standard that Nitish Kumar had himself set.

While he took over as CM in alliance with the BJP in 2005, he did restore the rule of law, built roads, schools, bridges and flyovers besides health infrastructure. He introduced measures to empower the extremely backward classes, Dalits and women. He also kept the communal forces at bay by punishing the culprits of the 1989 Bhagalpur riots, paid pension to the victims, regularised the service of Madrasa teachers and had graveyards fenced despite running his government in alliance with the BJP.

The pace of development largely remained intact when Nitish parted with the BJP in 2013. In 2015 RJD had 80 MLAs against JDU’s 71, but Lalu Prasad Yadav’s party let Nitish become the CM as per the pre-poll commitment of the Grand Alliance of RJD, JDU and the Congress.

Whatever his compulsions in embracing the BJP again in 2017, it is now clear that he has been the loser. Contours of the Hindutva hardliners were becoming clearer in 2017 and following the 2019 general election when BJP consolidated its position in the Lok Sabha, his position weakened further.

In the wake of the last assembly election, when BJP won 74 seats, which has gone up to 77 with Mukesh Sahni’s Vikassheel Insan Party’s three MLAs shifting to it, against JDU’s 43. While Nitish Kumar remained the CM, BJP had its way in installing a BJP MLA as the Speaker in Bihar assembly and while dropping Sushil Kumar Modi, with whom Nitish had a comfortable relationship. Two deputy chief ministers Tarkeswhar Prasad and Renu Devi from the BJP who “report” to the union home minister Amit Shah also helped weaken Nitish Kumar.

Embarrassment of the Chief Minister has been growing. Tarkeshwar Prasad unilaterally declared the controversial film Kashmir Files as tax free in Bihar without taking the CM and the cabinet into confidence. Several BJP leaders are routinely raising the demand to replace NK with someone from the BJP. BJP MLA, Vinay Bihari, has just been among the more vocal ones.

Is it then the end of the road for NK? Will he grab an escape route and move to the Centre, given an opportunity? Or would he try to beat the BJP in its own game and join hands with the RJD, Congress and other Opposition parties ahead of the 2024 elections?

If RJD-JDU and Congress combine, BJP will find the going tough in Bihar in the Lok Sabha election in 2024. The BJP-JDU combine had won 39 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats from the state in 2019. “It will be reversed in 2024 with the Opposition getting as many seats as the BJP has today if Nitish joins the Opposition,” said a JDU leader on conditions of anonymity.

It is precisely for these reasons the BJP’s top leadership—Narendra Modi and Amit Shah—are still keeping Nitish Kumar in good humour. At the same time, Nitish—a sharp politician—has kept both friends and foes guessing while keeping his cards close to his chest.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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