If Assembly elections in Bihar are held on schedule in November, Nitish Kumar will be contesting to hold on to the chief minister’s office for the fourth time in a row. But this will be the first election in the state when he would have no pretension to being either a secular or a socialist leader. The question is if it will eventually make any difference to the result.
Despite sharing power with the BJP as minister in the A B Vajpayee government (1999—2004) and then as Chief Minister from the NDA for over a decade between 2005 and 2015, he had maintained his image as a secular and socialist leader. Not in 2020 though.
His politics was based on fighting the three “Cs”, namely ‘communalism, corruption and crime’. To his credit, he stuck to this guiding principle till the emergence of Narendra Modi.
Before Modi, he was vocal against the extreme elements in the BJP-RSS, he didn’t allow Modi to campaign in Bihar, he didn’t yield to the ABVP, which stridently opposed setting up an off-campus centre of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) at Kishenganj, he paid pension to the weavers—mostly the victims of the 1989 Bhagalpur riots, got Muslims’ graveyards fenced and carried out speedy trial of the accused of the Bhagalpur riots.
In the process, he earned goodwill of the minorities and the minorities returned the gesture by voting for him despite his alliance with the BJP. Minority communities had no problem with the company Nitish Kumar kept or with his association with the BJP.
Ironically, he was able to maintain his ideological credentials as long as the Manmohan Singh led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were in power (2004-2014). Despite Lalu Prasad—Nitish’s main political rival in Bihar-- being a part of the UPA (Lalu was railway minister (2004- 09), the then Prime Minister treated Nitish Kumar with fairness.
The UPA government accepted many of his demands although he was with the BJP. The UPA Govt released Rs 1000 crore Backward Region Grant Fund (BRGF) per annum that was pending since 2000. Bihar was the largest beneficiary of MNRGS—UPA’s flagship scheme to end poverty—with Raghuvansh Prasad Singh holding the rural development portfolio at the Centre.
The UPA government was also generous in releasing funds for building roads, electric power and education infrastructures in Bihar. The Centre appointed the Raghuram Rajan Committee to look into Nitish’s then ‘cherished’ demand for a special category status to Bihar and the committee gave some favourable reports too.
Dr Manmohan Singh visited the flood hit people in Seemanchal and Kosi region in 2008 and released Rs 1000 crore for the relief of the marooned people which helped Nitish earn the credit for carrying out effective relief operations. The then union ministers, particularly, P Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh praised Nitish’s “good work” and Sonia- Rahul Gandhi were never overtly critical of him.
Nitish Kumar used UPA government’s ‘munificence’ as political capital to build his image as a credible, secular and inclusive leader. He unleashed a campaign against Narendra Modi, who was fighting to replace L. K Advani around 2008-09. In 2009, he went to the extent of calling off a dinner invitation to Narendra Modi and returned Rs five crore of relief as gift from the Gujarat Government.
He severed ties with the BJP in 2013 and contested the Lok Sabha polls in alliance with the CPI in 2014. The Narendra Modi led BJP won that election decisively.
In the Assembly elections next year, he buried his 20-years old animosity with Lalu Prasad and struck an alliance with the RJD and Congress. Lalu Yadav was, initially, reluctant to accept Nitish as the chief ministerial face. The grapevine held that Sonia Gandhi ‘persuaded’ him to accept Nitish which Lalu eventually did grudgingly, by saying, “I have swallowed poison to defeat communal forces”.
The RJD and JDU contested on 101 seats each and the Congress on 40 for the 243- member Bihar Assembly. The RJD emerged at the single largest party with 80 MLAs against 70 of the JDU. The Congress too fared well, winning 27 of the 40 seats it had contested.
It was during the campaign of 2015, that Nitish Kumar gave a call for “Sangh-Mukt Bharat” against Modi’s call for “Congress-Mukt Bharat”. He said, “I will be smashed to smithereens but I will never return to the BJP”. He profusely praised the Congress for its role in India’s freedom struggle and pilloried the RSSBJP for their dubious role.
Prime Minister, Narendra Modi while campaigning for his party at Arra in 2015, announced a special package of Rs 125 lakh Crore for Bihar. Nitish was quick to retaliate at a press conference, releasing data to rubbish Modi’s “farcical jugglery in statistics”. The JDU-RJD-Congress came to power and the BJP got reduced to 54 MLAs in 2015 despite Modi campaigning extensively in Bihar.
The first evidence of his ‘change of heart’ came when he praised Prime Minister Modi for the latter’s impromptu visit to Pakistan. Nitish stuck to his praise for Modi despite criticism of his Pakistan visit by the opposition and his own allies. He supported Demonetisation of currencies in 2016 when his then allies Congress and the RJD along with other opposition parties hit the streets to protest against its disastrous impact on the Indian economy.
In July 2017, the CBI carried out raids at the 10 Circular Road house where Lalu Yadav his wife and son Tejaswhi Yadav—deputy to Nitish— lived, in connection with an old case related to fraud in the Railways which the court had dropped on the same CBI’s report in 2013.
Nitish’s JDU asked Tejashwi to explain about his ‘role’ and Nitish called Lalu Yadav to communicate that he was breaking away from the Grand Alliance.
This writer asked Lalu if he had any indication that Nitish would break away.
The former CM said, “I was surprised when he phoned me. Of course, I had my share of doubts about his dishonest ways in politics but I did not expect him to return to the Modi led BJP. After hearing his one-line communication, ‘Bare bhai! Ab ham saath nahin rah sakengein (Elder brother! We can no longer live together)’, I put down the receiver and muttered, “Paltu Ram palat gaya (Mr Turnaround has taken a turn again)”.
It was hard to explain Nitish’s turn around. Some observers believe that Nitish wished to become the Prime Ministerial face of the Congress led UPA, but when rebuffed, he turned against the UPA. Others say that the Srijan scam—the biggest ever scam in Bihar’s history that involved fraudulent withdrawal of over Rs 1500 crore from the Bhagalpur treasury by people close to his party and ministers— caused the sommersault. Nitish’s detractors say that Narendra ModiAmit Shah duo ‘blackmailed’ him into returning to the NDA fold.
Significantly, Nitish Kumar supported the BJP on the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), his party abstained from voting on the issue of scrapping Article 370 and he has been tight lipped on Delhi riots and myriad cases of selective mayhem on the minorities.
His complete surrender to the BJP became evident in the 2019 Lok Sabha election when JDU did not issue any separate manifesto. But it was a national election with focus on Narendra Modi and it was not noticed much.
His surrender to the BJP may or may not have any bearing on the results, which are subject to variety of other factors and circumstances. But his much vaunted “three Cs” stand clearly abandoned. Nitish Kumar’s surrender to the saffron camp is complete and total.