Nitish Kumar: Bihar’s Chanakya-turned-Chandragupta

Following the age-old proverb enemy’s enemy is a friend joined hands with former foe Lalu Prasad to halt the Narendra Modi juggernaut.

November 08, 2015 05:18 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 02:04 am IST - Patna

Nitish Kumar.

Nitish Kumar.

Nitish Kumar, often referred to as Chanakya of Bihar politics, lived up to the moniker when he surprisingly joined hands with arch rival RJD boss Lalu Prasad to script a third consecutive term for himself as Chief Minister after being bruised and bloodied in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Following the age-old proverb enemy’s enemy is a friend, the 64-year-old JD(U) leader whose party won just two of the State’s 40 seats in the Lok Sabha poll, a development that impelled him to step down and hand over the reins to Jitan Ram Manjhi, joined hands with Mr. Prasad to halt bete noire Narendra Modi’s juggernaut in Bihar.

Mr. Prasad and Mr. Kumar, friends-turned-foes in State politics, sank their differences to revive an alliance that began over 40 years ago with the students’ agitation, which soon turned into a pan-India movement led by veteran socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan.

Though Mr. Prasad got lucky in his very first outing in the electoral arena, winning Lok Sabha poll in 1977, it took Mr. Kumar, an Electrical Engineer from NIT Patna, then known as Bihar College of Engineering, eight more years to get elected to the State Assembly for the first time in 1985, after having lost twice.

Though as different as chalk and cheese, Mr. Kumar backed Mr. Prasad in bagging the chair of the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly in 1989 and again when he challenged Ram Sundar Das and Raghunath Jha, nominees of Prime Minister V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar respectively, for the Chief Minister’s post after the then Janata Dal came to power in Bihar in 1990.

Mr. Kumar, who won the 1989 Lok Sabha polls from Barh, shifted his focus to Delhi, getting elected to the Lok Sabha in 1991, 1996, 1998 and 1999. He became Minister of State for Agriculture in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and then briefly the Railway Minister in 1999. He resigned after the train tragedy at Gaisal in West Bengal in 1999 in which nearly 300 people were killed.

Suave and articulate, Mr. Kumar again became Railway Minister in 2001 and continued till 2004 during which period he was credited with introducing several reforms in the public sector behemoth like internet ticket booking and Tatkal system of instant booking. The Godhra train burning incident in February 2002, which provided the spark that soon consumed Gujarat in communal flames, occurred during his tenure at the Rail Bhavan.

Even as Mr. Kumar sharpened his political and administrative skills in the corridors of powers in Delhi, he drifted away from Mr. Prasad.

In 1994, he, together with George Fernandes, the stormy petrel of the socialist movement, walked out of the Janata Dal after Mr. Prasad plumped for Sharad Yadav for party presidentship, and formed the Samata Party, which joined hands with the BJP ahead of the 1996 general elections.

In years that followed, Mr. Sharad Yadav was also marginalised in the Janata Dal, with Mr. Prasad gaining complete control over it.

Later, Mr. Sharad Yadav’s faction of the Janata Dal, the Samata Party and the Lokshakti of former Karnataka Chief Minister Ramkrishna Hegde merged to form the Janata Dal (United) in 2003.

After the NDA lost the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Mr. Kumar shifted his focus back on Bihar once again where the Rabri Devi government was fast losing popularity.

An OBC leader himself, Mr. Kumar returned to Bihar and launched himself into a sustained campaign against he Lalu-Rabri dispensation. His efforts paid off and the JD(U)-BJP combine formed government in the Sate after the 2005 Assembly polls, with Mr. Kumar as Chief Minister.

For the first time in many years, development became the buzz word as he got into a mission mode, completing pending infrastructure projects, recruiting over 1 lakh school teachers, and bringing crime under check. Teachers began to be seen in faraway schools and doctors in primary health centres.

He introduced a scheme of free bicycles for girl students which sharply brought down the dropout rate. Mr. Kumar was soon hailed as Vikas Purush .

Seeking to cut Mr. Prasad’s support base which extended to the Dalits, he created another bloc of Mahadalits, or the extremely weaker sections among the Dalits, and announced a number of welfare schemes for them.

In the 2010 Assembly election, the JD(U)-BJP alliance won 206 of the 243 seats, decimating the RJD, which could bag just 22 and was rendered ineligible for even the post of the Leader of the Opposition.

However, despite his strong ties with the BJP, Mr. Kumar’s relations with his then Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi continued to sour. Mr. Kumar had stalled all attempts by the BJP to allow Mr. Modi to campaign in the two elections the alliance won in Bihar under his stewardship.

Anointment of Mr. Modi as BJP campaign committee chief for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls proved the proverbial last straw and Mr. Kumar led his party out of the NDA in June 2013.

He resigned as Chief Minister on May 17, 2014 after the JD(U)’s catastrophic performance in the Lok Sabha polls when it managed to win barely two seats and handed over the reins to Mahadalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi.

But as the Assembly polls approached, Mr. Kumar realised the Mahadalit leader would not be able to lead the party to victory. Mr. Kumar asked him to step down and pave the way for his return as Chief Minister. As Mr. Manjhi dug in his heels and refused to quit, he was ousted by JD(U) MLAs and Mr. Kumar was back at the helm in February 2015 after a nine-month hiatus with support from Mr. Prasad’s RJD and the Congress.

Humbled at the hustings by the Modi wave, both Mr. Kumar and Mr. Prasad were looking for new friends to shore up their sagging political fortunes. The former comrades-in-arms decided to bury the hatchet, a strategy that paid off.

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