Nitish Kumar’s last hurrah

Arguably the most remarkable feature of this great survivor of a politician is his ability to sense the moment to jump ship

Nitish Kumar (file photo)
Nitish Kumar (file photo)

Soroor Ahmed

He famously lost the election in 1977 despite the anti-Indira Gandhi wave sweeping the country after Emergency had been lifted. He did not give up, not even after a string of electoral losses.

Nitish was one of the young Turks who went against the wishes of V.P. Singh to instal Lalu Prasad Yadav as chief minister in 1989. They fell out soon enough, and in 1994, he parted company with Lalu, vowing to oust him. He and George Fernandes aligned with the BJP, and joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Vajpayee.

"It took him ten years, four elections and an alliance with the ideologically antagonistic BJP to wrest Bihar from Lalu," (in 2005), notes Sankarshan Thakur in his book Single Man: The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar.

People often talk about Nitish’s patience. His face is a mask, giving little away. Between 2005 and 2013, ‘sushashan babu’ earned a reputation for good governance. He also got around a fair bit — a trade trip to China in 2011, for example, and interactions with the likes of Bill Gates, Amartya Sen, Meghnad Desai, George Yeo and Nicholas Stern.

He didn’t quit the NDA government in 2002 (after the Gujarat riots), but made no secret of his dislike of Narendra Modi. He finally broke away from the NDA in 2013 in a futile bid to stop Modi from becoming the prime minister.

But arguably the most remarkable feature of this great survivor of a politician is his ability to sense the moment to jump ship. Nitish, who has fully earned his current reputation as ‘paltu babu (flip-flopper)’, has a rare talent for making himself useful — and available at just the right time — to parties inimical to each other.

He broke away from the NDA in 2013; from the Mahagathbandhan in 2017 (to rejoin the NDA); from the NDA again in 2022 (to rejoin forces with the RJD and Congress); he hosted the first meeting of the INDIA bloc in Patna in 2023 and then went back in January 2024 into the lap of the NDA.

Following the consecration of the Ram Mandir, he felt the BJP was certain to return to power and jumped ship. It was a huge risk. He was made to accept two BJP leaders as deputy chief ministers, including one who had threatened to put him behind bars. To rub it in, the BJP insisted the JD(U), as a junior partner, contest 16 seats compared to the BJP’s 17. Nobody expected the JD(U) to spring a surprise by winning 12, equalling the BJP’s haul in Bihar. (The vote shares are a whole different story, but more on that later.)

Like Naidu, Nitish too sees himself as Modi’s senior with a better and longer political innings. When Modi raised his hand at an NDA rally in Ludhiana in 2009, Nitish made his disapproval evident. That was the year Nitish demanded special status for Bihar as a pre-condition to support the UPA or the NDA after the election. JD(U) had won 20 Lok Sabha seats that year and helped BJP secure 12 more seats in Bihar.

A year later, when the BJP brass was in Patna to attend the national executive of the party (12–13 June 2010), Advani and Modi were declared state guests while other leaders were put up at the hotel where the meeting was held. Nitish called off the welcome dinner on 12 June in reaction to a front-page newspaper advertisement in Patna featuring Modi, informing readers that he had donated Rs 5 crore to the Bihar chief minister’s flood relief fund. The advertisement also reproduced the photograph from Ludhiana. Infuriated, Nitish returned the cheque.

The relationship swiftly went downhill. In June 2013, three months before Modi was finally declared as the BJP’s prime ministerial face on 13 September, Nitish dropped all 11 BJP ministers from his cabinet. As JD(U) had 115 MLAs in the House of 243, it didn’t matter.

In 2014, JD(U) contested the Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the CPI and won only two seats, compelling him to join hands with the RJD and Congress for the 2015 Assembly election. This led to bitter word battles between him and Modi, the latter questioning the CM’s DNA, the former vowing he would rather die than go with the BJP.

Cut to 4 June: Nitish recast in the role of a kingmaker. Like Modi, he is not known to forgive and forget. Like Modi, he believes in settling personal scores. Modi had better watch out.

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