The trapeze artist Nitish Kumar’s balancing act

One can walk on a tightrope for a few paces or a few minutes in a circus, with a safety-net underneath. Is it possible that Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has spent a little too long on the trapeze?

The trapeze artist Nitish Kumar’s balancing act
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Soroor Ahmed

One can walk on a tightrope for a few paces or a few minutes in a circus, with a safety-net underneath. But can one hardly hope to be a trapeze artist forever. Is it possible that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has spent a little too long on the trapeze?

It would be early and premature to say that his political fall is imminent. But he certainly seems to have fallen in the eyes of not just his supporters within the party but also in the eyes of the people. His act of expelling Pavan Verma and Prashant Kishor, both of whom had spoken up and said that though he was fully aware of the threat that BJP and RSS posed to the country, he was toeing their lines so as to remain the Chief Minister, do not seem to have gone down well either.

His flip-flops and stand on the CAA-NPR and NRIC have been confusing, to say the least. And his supporters within also concede that he has compromised on his ideology and has been acting against his better judgment. While JD(U) did not join the central ministry in protest against the BJP giving it minor portfolios, he has had no issue with the BJP which allotted JD(U) two seats to contest in the Delhi Assembly election. Indeed, he shared the platform with Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Delhi on Feb 2 at an election rally.

He thus abandoned the established policy of the Janata Dal United that the alliance with the BJP was only confined to Bihar. Be it the Assembly elections in UP or even PM Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat the Janata Dal United had always contested separately. In Arunachal Pradesh, the party is the main opposition to the ruling BJP.

So what prompted the Bihar Chief Minister to go to such an extent in Delhi? Here he chose to lash out at Arvind Kejriwal, with whom Nitish has had a very good relationship.

The answer is simple: Nitish Kumar has certainly lost all his clout within the NDA and is bound to be used as a pawn by the saffron party in the coming Assembly election in Bihar in October. At the same time the BJP was not sure about its own chances in Delhi, especially after exit of the Akali Dal, and wanted the support of JDU and LJP.

A few weeks back Amit Shah made it clear that the NDA would go to poll in Bihar ‘under the leadership’ of Nitish Kumar. But no categorical assurance has been given that he will again be the Chief Minister if NDA wins the majority.

Ironically, till a few years back he was touted as an alternative prime ministerial face even within the NDA. But now he does not seem to be even the undisputed chief ministerial face of the NDA in Bihar.

Understanding Nitish, a master U-turner, is not an easy job. In the last quarter century, he has changed his stand so many times that even his closest lieutenant does not know what will be his next move. He has used and dumped many of his close and trusted associates.

But in the caste and community-ridden society of Bihar, Nitish––though a very ambitious man––has failed to cultivate his own constituency and make it big enough so that he could go it alone. So he had to, in the words of Shaibal Gupta, member-secretary Asian Development Research Institute, Patna, stich a “coalition of extremes”, that is a tie-up of his own apparently secular party with the BJP.

One needs to go back to post-1991 developments to understand the mind of Nitish. That was the time when two successive governments of VP Singh and Chandrashekar had fallen and the original Janata Dal got split.

This development at the national level rendered many of the leaders of the Janata Parivar ‘jobless’. Those having base in Bihar––for example George Fernandes, Nitish Kumar, former CM Abdul Ghafoor, diplomat-turned-politician Syed Shahabuddin, Vashisth Narayan Singh (now Bihar JDU chief) –– were faced with an existential crisis.

With the Narasimha Rao-led government in power at the Centre and Lalu Prasad Yadav, a very powerful Chief Minister in Bihar, there was no political space left for them. They felt neglected. Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav were still with Lalu then.

So George and Nitish tried to carve out their own space in their home turf. They split the Janata Dal in Bihar and formed Samata Party (the earlier version of JDU) in October 1994. The new outfit hurriedly joined hands with the CPI ML, which had gone overground only a couple of years before. But in the Assembly election held early in 1995, Samata Party ended up winning only seven out of 324 seats in the then undivided Bihar.

This paved the way for the duo to join hands with the BJP ahead of 1996 Lok Sabha poll. Ghafoor and Shahabuddin along with several others left the party at this juncture.

From then started a new journey for Nitish Kumar. As the space created by the Mandal politics was occupied by Lalu Yadav, Samata Party found it more convenient politically to join forces with those who engaged in Mandir politics. They smelt that the future lay there.

However, the duo of George and Nitish believed that they would be able to ‘protect’ their secular identity. The BJP on the other hand was badly in need of a backward caste leader with a rural/agriculture background. This was essential to counter Lalu.

BJP leader Sushil Modi was no doubt an influential personality, but he was a city-bred man with little say in rural Bihar. The BJP was till then an urban phenomenon.

Thus, in Nitish Kumar, the BJP found a man to neutralise the influence of Lalu in non-Yadav section of the backwards. Nitish succeeded in wooing his own castemen Kurmis as well as Koeiris, two important intermediate castes. But their combined strength was not even half of Yadavs. So he soon started cultivating the Extreme Backward Castes, who formed about a quarter of Bihar’s population. Twenty per cent reservation was announced for them in urban and rural local bodies. He tried to win over Dalits and a Mahadalit Commission was established to look after their problems.

So RJD’s support base was eroded, but this did not help Nitish much longer. This was because the BJP started concentrating its attention on EBCs and Dalits. After the advent of Narendra Modi in 2013, this phenomenon gathered more pace.

Nitish smelt this design, so in June the same year he snapped ties with the saffron party. But that proved to be a serious miscalculation. The Bihar Chief Minister thought that he would get the votes of EBCs and Dalits, but that was not to be. A big number of them went over to the BJP.

In the Lok Sabha election held in 2014, the Janata Dal United, which contested in alliance with the CPI, could win only two seats. An upset Nitish soon resigned and handed over his power to handpicked Dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi.

The motive was once again to lure Dalits. But Nitish thought that he may not be able to bounce back so months ahead of 2015 Assembly poll he joined hands with the RJD. That was something unusual.

Under the formula the RJD and JDU contested 101 seats each and Congress 41––the total strength of the House is 243. But Nitish got another shock as his party’s strike rate was not better than RJD, though he was projected as the CM face of the Grand Alliance. The RJD won 80 seats against 71 by Janata Dal United. The Congress bagged 27.

Nitish was embarrassed by the result though the GA won 178 seats and the BJP just 53. Five other seats were won by other NDA constituents.

By 2016 Nitish started realising his mistake. It was futile to fight Narendra Modi. He was desperate to make a homecoming. As the duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah did not like Sushil Modi, they were quick to embrace Nitish.

RSS and the BJP would like a government in Bihar which is dominated by the BJP, a BJP government if possible. But the party appears unsure of its success if it decides to go alone. And though it has a number of central ministers from Bihar, there is no consensus on any one face. So, why not agree to work with an alliance partner who is eager to dance to its tune?

The public image of Nitish Kumar and his deputy Sushil Kumar Modi has taken a beating in the state after the infamous Srijan Scam involving Rs 1500 crore and the Muzaffarpur shelter home scandal involving alleged rape and murder of inmates. All those involved in the two scandals were closely linked to the two.

The manner in which Nitish and Sushil Modi left lakhs of people stranded in the state capital in neck deep water last year is also fresh in public memory.

It is therefore possible that the survivor has run out of options. And he is unlikely to commit another 2013-type political blunder.

Game, set and match to the BJP? Well, the Assembly election will tell.

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