Nitish Kumar | The man who mastered political engineering

The JD (U) leader has used the secularism and anti-corruption cards deftly to make and break alliances that made him one of the longest serving Chief Ministers of one of India’s poorest States

August 14, 2022 12:06 am | Updated 06:50 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Nitish Kumar has a degree in electrical engineering, a profession that he never pursued. Instead, over four decades of electoral politics, he has mastered political engineering, earning him the rare distinction of being one of the longest serving Chief Ministers of Bihar. On Wednesday, he took oath as Chief Minister for the eighth time. On six occasions, it was with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and twice, including the latest stint, with the support of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

Politics was not a natural choice of career for him. When he left his home in Bakhtiyarpur for higher education in Patna in 1966, the aim was to get a well-paying and stable job. It was Ram Manohar Lohia’s acerbic writing that ensnared Mr. Kumar. If Lohia’s words seduced him into politics, Jai Prakash Narayan’s call for “total revolution” gave him a space.

Mr. Kumar, like many present-day politicians, is a child of the JP movement. But unlike many of his peers, he did not immediately hit the limelight. His electoral career began with a defeat. In 1980, after years of hanging around on the margins, he finally got ticket to contest the Bihar elections from Harnaut, his home district of Nalanda. He lost the seat. But it was only the beginning. Even his critics would appreciate Mr. Kumar’s doggedness in the face of defeat. He stayed on in Harnaut, wresting the seat in 1985 by a margin of over 20,000 votes.

Mr. Kumar and Lalu Prasad’s paths have been intertwined right from the beginning. He acted as Mr. Prasad’s cheerleader and advocate, whenever needed. If Mr Prasad was a flamboyant orator, Mr. Kumar was the quiet backroom boy who drafted press notes and lobbied for Mr. Prasad. In March 1990, Mr. Kumar played a crucial role in getting support for Mr. Prasad in a keenly contested battle within the Janata Dal for the Chief Minister’s post.

But within two years, the spell had broken, and Mr. Kumar and Mr. Prasad were no longer on talking terms. In part, the disenchantment grew because of what Mr. Kumar called Mr. Prasad’s dictatorial ways.

Split with Lalu

The final break came in April 1994. A group of 14 Janata Dal MPs revolted against Mr. Prasad, lining up behind socialist stalwart George Fernandes and naming the group Janata Dal (George). While Fernandes was the face of the group, Mr. Kumar was its creator. On October 19, 1994, this group renamed itself the Samata Party with a ringing call — Bihar Bachao (save Bihar from Mr. Prasad’s clutches). With this began Mr. Kumar’s 21-year-long feud with Mr. Prasad. However, the road ahead was not smooth. As in 1980, Mr. Kumar, once again, came face to face with defeat. The newly formed Samata Party got just seven seats in the 1995 Bihar Assembly election.

It was a few months after this ignominious defeat that Mr. Kumar met L.K. Advani, then president of the BJP, and in no time an alliance was consolidated between the two on the foundation of anti-Lalu Prasad sentiments. While Mr. Kumar is accused of being an opportunist, it is a fact that his association with the BJP exceeds any other political relationship he had. In all these years, the BJP willingly assisted him on his way to 1 Aney Marg, the Chief Minister’s residence in Patna. The 2000 Assembly election in Bihar is an instructive example.

In 1997, after the unveiling of the fodder scam, Mr. Prasad formed the RJD, parting ways with the Janata Dal. He was on a sticky wicket and the Opposition hoped that he could be defeated. But they squabbled and squandered away their chance. Mr. Kumar, whose Samata Party had allied with his former socialist colleagues Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav’s Janata Dal (United) just months ago for the Lok Sabha election, parted ways ahead of the 2000 Assembly polls.

The results reflected their differences. The BJP alliance got 122 seats while the RJD secured 124. With the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the centre, the NDA staked claim in Bihar and anointed Mr. Kumar, for the first time, as Chief Minister. He lasted just seven days in the post.

Opposition parties applauded the “secular” change in Bihar. Mr. Kumar has, in the recent years, deployed the “secularism argument” to justify his political somersaults. In June 2013, just a week after then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was named the campaign committee chief of the BJP for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Mr. Kumar snapped his ties with the BJP. For a year, prior to taking the plunge, he had been campaigning for a “secular Prime Minister”.

But his secular outlook was new-found, as many critics pointed out that Mr. Kumar did not flinch during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The Vajpayee government lost at least two allies — Ram Vilas Paswan and Omar Abdullah — as a fall-out of the riots but Mr. Kumar, who was the Union Agriculture Minister, stayed on. He had not openly repudiated Mr. Modi in the context of the Gujarat riots. But he was growing uncomfortable by his growing stature at the national level. Mr. Kumar has always nursed Prime Ministerial ambitions, according to analysts. But with Narendra Modi’s arrival, there was no vacancy.

His decision to snap ties with the BJP cost him dear. He did not see a pro-Modi wave brewing. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the JD(U) got only two seats, forcing Mr. Kumar to step down from the Chief Minister’s post. He briefly handed over the baton to his colleague Jitan Ram Manjhi. But within months, he was hobnobbing with Mr. Prasad and the RJD. In June 2015, the two, caught in an awkward embrace, announced their alliance for the coming assembly elections in the state.

Unravelling alliance

The alliance started unravelling within a year. In November 2016 when the opposition raged against the Modi government’s demonetisation, Mr. Kumar’s was the lone voice from the Opposition camp supporting it. In February 2017, Mr. Kumar claimed he had to hear the voice of his antaratma or conscience. He could not continue to head a government when his deputy was under the radar of enforcement agencies for a host of corruption cases.

In politics, alliances change. The BJP heaped abuses on Mr. Kumar in 2014 when he took a stand against Mr. Modi. But all this was forgotten and forgiven after he returned to the NDA in 2017.

However, it was not Vajpayee’s BJP that Mr. Kumar had returned to. By the time Bihar faced the next Assembly election in November 2020, there was no Arun Jaitley to broker peace and put the house in order. The BJP was no longer satisfied with playing a supporting role. In a Machiavellian move, they deployed Chirag Paswan of the Lok Jan Shakti Party, to hurt the JD(U). Mr. Paswan walked out of the NDA and contested against the JD(U). Mr. Kumar, now with just 43 legislators, was no longer in a commanding position.

Announcing the party’s latest split with the BJP, JD(U) president and Mr. Kumar’s loyalist, Rajiv Ranjan Singh, aka Lalan Singh, claimed that the BJP was trying to replicate the Maharashtra model in Bihar, breaking the JD(U) from within. Sources say Mr. Kumar had made up his mind to leave the NDA months ago, but the RJD, still nursing the 2017 hangover, could not easily trust him. It took the two sides nearly three months to thrash out an alliance.

The obvious question in everyone’s mind now is how long will the latest Mahagatbandhan government last. Mr. Kumar’s parting message to the BJP is this: you may have come to power in 2014 but will you remain in power beyond 2024? The challenge also belies his own wish to play a larger role in national politics. But will he, in his twilight years, leave his favourite playground in favour of exploring an uncertain future in Delhi? The last word has not been spoken.

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