Bihar: Nitish Kumar’s slow walk to political oblivion

Under this astute opportunist, the JD(U) always punched above its weight in Bihar, but those days are numbered

Nitish Kumar with Ravi Shankar Prasad behind him
Nitish Kumar with Ravi Shankar Prasad behind him

Soroor Ahmed

Independent observers agree that in trying to prolong his hold on power, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has effectively written his political obituary. The death of his long-time friend and close associate Sushil Kumar Modi, former deputy chief minister and a BJP leader, on 13 May comes as an additional blow. They had jointly helmed the JD(U)-BJP coalition governments in the state for more than 11 years (with a break between 16 June 2013 and 26 July 2017).

When L.K. Advani was sidelined and Arun Jaitley passed away, the duo was regarded with suspicion by the BJP central leadership. On Sunday, 12 May, the day before Sushil Modi passed away, Nitish Kumar cut a sorry figure in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s roadshow in Patna. Both looked grim and uneasy as they stood next to each other in an open jeep (Modi on a stool that made him look taller). Nitish Kumar was caught on camera wincing as he waved a lotus thrust into his hands.

In his heyday, Nitish Kumar might have advised against conducting a roadshow in the congested part of old Patna. Harassed locals recalled how he had withdrawn a dinner invitation to Modi when the latter was the Gujarat chief minister and returned a cheque for Rs 5 crore sent by Modi for flood relief, seeing that ‘benevolence’ for what it was — front-page newspaper advertising.

Modi’s second roadshow in Patna on Monday, 20 May, was ostensibly to pay his condolences to the grieving family. Nitish Kumar, who was reported to have fallen ill the day after his friend’s death, did not appear at Sushil Modi’s funeral. Neither was he able to travel to his ancestral village to attend the death anniversary function of his deceased wife, nor join the long list of NDA bigwigs and chief ministers as the prime minister filed his nomination papers in Varanasi on 14 May.

The future of the Janata Dal (U) is uncertain, even as there is unanimity among public and politicos alike that Nitish Kumar’s five-decade political career is nearing a sad and inglorious end. His only son was either kept away from politics or showed no inclination for a political career. Unlike several regional parties including the RJD in Bihar, Nitish Kumar has no designated political successor, from his family or otherwise.

He did promote at least five close aides as his virtual or actual ‘number two’ in the party, describing them as capable leaders in whose hands the party would be safe. Among them were IAS officer-turned-politician, R.C.P. Singh, election strategist Prashant Kishor, former Union minister Upendra Kushwaha, the sitting Munger MP Lallan Singh and, for a brief period, even Tejashwi Prasad Yadav. Each one of them was unceremoniously dumped.

An author of a book on contemporary Bihar politics says, on condition of anonymity, “Nitish Kumar does seem to suffer from insecurity; he has not allowed anyone to rise from the ranks. Because of his deteriorating health and possibly memory lapses, he appears to have become even more insecure and erratic.” Frequent mood changes, uncharacteristically crass language, sudden outbursts and laboured explanations of his shifting political stance have not escaped notice and, as a result, his authority is at an all-time low.

Nitish Kumar nominated Harivansh Narayan Singh, then editor-in-chief of the Hindi daily Prabhat Khabar, to the Rajya Sabha and did not object when the BJP made Harivansh deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha. The former editor, however, has kept a low profile and remained scrupulously away from politics in the state.

Nitish also promoted Sanjay Jha, who had once worked closely with Arun Jaitley, his pointsman in Patna for several years. Jha was suspected by several party leaders of being a BJP mole reporting to New Delhi until he too was ‘rewarded’ with a seat in the Rajya Sabha.

R.C.P. Singh, a fellow Kurmi from Nitish's own home district of Nalanda, was perceived as Nitish Kumar’s political successor for several years. A former IAS officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, Singh operated from the chief minister’s office and was seen as a de facto chief minister. He was anointed the party’s national president in December 2020 and nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

However, within three weeks of his induction into the Union cabinet in July 2021, he was removed from the party post by Nitish Kumar and denied renomination to the Rajya Sabha in June 2022. This led to his abrupt resignation as Union minister.

Singh was thereafter expelled from the party after block-level JD(U) workers accused him of corruption in the purchase of land by him and his two daughters between 2013 and 2022. Curiously, this was the period when he was closest to Nitish Kumar. A party leader recalled that the CM had trusted Singh ever since he became a Union minister in the 1990s. The latter joined the BJP in May 2023, but his utility to the party was apparently a thing of the past.

In 2018, Prashant Kishor was appointed national vice-president of the JD(U) with a cabinet rank and allotted the bungalow next to the chief minister’s. Nitish Kumar publicly declared that the future prospect of the party was secure in Kishor’s hands. That warmth proved short-lived, and in January 2020, Kishor and the party’s general secretary, former diplomat Pawan Verma, were both expelled from JD(U). Kishor turned into a bitter critic of Nitish Kumar, but nobody knows why the two fell apart.

A few months after the 2020 Assembly election, Upendra Kushwaha merged his Rashtriya Lok Samata Party with the JD(U) and was made the chairman of the party’s parliamentary board. He too was projected as a successor to Nitish Kumar. On 9 August 2022, when Nitish Kumar once again quit the NDA to regroup with the RJD, Kushwaha went his own way. By then, Nitish had started publicly declaring Tejashwi as the future hope of the Mahagathbandhan.

In December 2023, Kumar took over as party president following the resignation of Lallan Singh, who is now contesting the Lok Sabha election from Munger. And in January 2024, the king of flip-flops returned to the NDA after abandoning the INDIA bloc, despite having hosted its first meeting in Patna barely months ago.

D.M. Diwakar, a former director of the Patna-based A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, rules out a JD(U)-BJP merger. Virtually a one-man party, JD(U) is not a cadre-based organisation. (On polling days in earlier elections, it has traditionally relied upon BJP’s committed workers.)

Some observers feel it will be easy for the BJP to gobble up the JD(U) before the next Assembly election in 2025. RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav also says the JD(U) is on a ventilator and will not last long. The JD(U) splitting and one faction going with the BJP and another with the RJD is another possibility.

The fall of the once powerful and prominent regional satrap has been dramatic. With the Ram Mandir threatening to overshadow all other electoral considerations, the JD(U) leader was apparently advised to hitch his horse to the BJP bandwagon for survival. Some of the members of the coterie, ministers among them, feared investigation by Central agencies for corruption, while others were convinced that it would be easier to arrange funds for the election with the BJP’s backing.

It was, suggest these insiders, a bad judgement call. Nitish Kumar would have been a powerful voice in the Opposition alliance, a potential prime minister even. By burning bridges mid-stream, he stands to lose much more than his political ambition.

If the JD(U) and the NDA suffer serious reverses in the state, it may well be the death knell of his own political future. A lot will depend on the results of the Lok Sabha election on 4 June. Meanwhile, JD(U) leaders and office-bearers are braving it out, though one of them did exclaim, in private, “Sab kuchh gadbad ho gaya. Prospect thik nahi hai (Everything has turned upside down. The prospects are bleak).”

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