Nitish Kumar may speak with folded hands but thinks with hands crossed
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
NITISH KUMAR DOES not flip. He manoeuvres. A flip or a somersault is too dynamic for his somnolent political personality. Think sideways, an arc slipping away by unseen steps while snatches from an orchestrated light-and-shadows engagement with yesterday’s friends and tomorrow’s foes form air bubbles for a thirsty media. Think the curve-mirror symmetry of a parabola, with a focal point of course but with the lines wandering away towards an open end. The best application of a parabola is in antennae, light reflectors, and ballistic missiles; all three are vital gear in Indian democracy’s electoral wars. He never operates in a circle, for a circle inhibits movement. His focus is on power, a legitimate aspiration in democracy, and his line of manoeuvre is always flexible enough for the algebra of coalitions.
Nitish Kumar does not flop. If he did, he would not have been sworn in chief minister of Bihar for the eighth time, a record unlikely to be broken. Nor would the brain-laden editor of this estimable publication waste expensive newsprint on him. To say that he has flip-flopped is to underestimate him.
His longevity in office is best measured against past record. Bihar has had long spells of turbulence when chief ministers sat on rotating chairs; their brevity became endemic in the three decades between 1960 and 1990.
It all began well, as it often does in this combative state. The memorable and venerable “Bihar Kesari” Babu Shri Krishna Sinha was master of all he surveyed from the first Congress ministry in 1937 to his death in 1961. After him, the deluge, as said Louis XV, the penultimate Bourbon king before the French Revolution drowned its monarchy in blood. There was no Bihar revolution, but Shri Babu’s successors fell victim to the democratic guillotine with amazing regularity. Shri Krishna Sinha was followed by a certain Deep Narayan Singh whose tryst with destiny lasted 17 days, for reasons which have been justifiably forgotten by history. The fortunes of Bihar might have blossomed if Deputy Chief Minister Anugrah Narayan Sinha, a veteran of Mahatma Gandhi’s Champaran campaign of 1917 and lauded as “Bihar Vibhuti”, had become the state’s second chief minister. But he passed away in 1957.
The third chief minister, Pandit Binodanand Jha, lasted for two-and-a-half years before the Congress high command pulled him out of Patna. His successor, KB Sahay, survived for nearly four years between 1963 and 1967, and then sank without a trace when Congress was trounced in the 1967 Assembly election. The guillotine began working overtime with the onset of ragged coalition governments in 1967, wittily described as “united” fronts. These non-Congress alliances were barely fronts, and there was certainly nothing united about them. Satish Prasad Singh survived for five days, BP Mandal for 51, Bhola Paswan Shastri for 100, Harihar Singh for 117, Daroga Prasad Rai for 310, and Karpoori Thakur for 163 (in his first term). Even when Congress had stable majorities in Delhi and Patna in the 1980s, the chief minister’s chair remained slung to a merry-go-round. From 1991, the state had a decade-and-a-half of comparative stability, but only at the cost of family rule by one clan under the patriarch Lalu Prasad Yadav. Everyone in Bihar, and everyone dealing with Bihar, had oodles of time for shenanigans and little for governance.
After him came a second graduate from the socialist class of 1977, the year in which they came into public view by winning elections on the Janata ticket. The Yadavs with their perfectly bound caste equations could not be defeated, until they were punctured by Nitish Kumar, who has dominated from November 2005 till the moment of writing. His first spell in office was not very fortuitous; he lasted for only seven days after taking the oath on March 3, 2000. But over the next 22 years, he has seen it all. His epic long war against Lalu Prasad finally seems to have been resolved. Time and tide have on occasion led to a temporary truce, which evaporated as quickly as it arrived. Age may have tempered the worst instincts, but a substantive and sobering reason brought them together for what is surely the last time in their lives. They know that if they do not join forces now, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will swallow up one and marginalise the other.
Survival in the slippery political soil of Bihar is anchored in pragmatism, while preachy criticism becomes an empty echo in a spacious glass house. Nitish Kumar can be as smooth as a flowing river, and then suddenly transform into a sea wave. Sometimes he adjusts the climate, and sometimes the climate adjusts him. He is practical rather than ideological. He has patience. He can stoop to conquer or sidestep to survive. He knows how to play with time; in Bihar if you do not know how to manage time, time will subjugate you.
Survival in the slippery political soil of Bihar is anchored in pragmatism, while preachy criticism becomes an empty echo in a spacious glass house. Nitish Kumar can be as smooth as a flowing river, and then suddenly transform into a sea wave. Sometimes he adjusts the climate, and sometimes the climate adjusts him. He is practical rather than ideological. He has patience. He can stoop to conquer or sidestep to survive. He knows how to play with time; in Bihar if you do not know how to manage time, time will subjugate you
Nitish Kumar does not waste his appetite on fripperies, or any nominal by-products of power. As a colleague put it, most kurtas become whiter after a wash; his become darker, for the khadi is coarse. He is indifferent to food, drink, or dress. He would much rather pick up a muffler from a friend than buy a scarf. He has limited interest in money. He does not have a personal life. The engineering he studied at the National Institute of Technology has been diverted into devising the innumerable bridges that must be constructed in the architecture of alliance politics. It is a persuasive curriculum vitae for a man with limited electoral resources and significant ambitions. It enables Nitish Kumar to punch above his weight.
Unlike communists, socialists are not anti-BJP in principle. As early as in the 1960s, Ram Manohar Lohia, the great ideologue of Indian socialism, justified an alliance with BJP, or the Bharatiya Jana Sangh as it was then called, in the cause of unity against Congress. Socialism in its present avatar is vague enough to adjust and pious enough to attract. It has the unique advantage of a religion. All it needs to do is make a sincere promise. Delivery comes later. In the case of religion, delivery after death. In the case of socialism, after the next election.
It was not ideology which drove Nitish Kumar out of the BJP embrace. He has been a partner in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for far too long, and is too astute, to claim any sudden hallelujah moment. The differences, hence, can only be over tactical objectives. In a display of refreshing candour, he explained his departure from NDA by saying that he was being squeezed out anyway.
Nitish Kumar is adroit with phrases. He does not want to be a chief minister of Bihar or a prime minister of India, until he becomes one.
As a partner of BJP there is no room at the top, so he must find another inn. He has consequently moved from bandhan with BJP to a mahagathbandhan with a host of parties. For the moment his desires are limited, as he said recently in Patna: “I say this with folded hands. I have no such thoughts…My work is to work for everyone. I will make an effort to see that all the opposition parties work together. If they do it will be good…”
As logic, such goodness is inarguable. As self-service it is unbeatable; after all, you can only become prime minister if the parties work together.
Nitish Kumar may speak with folded hands but thinks with hands crossed. There is a distinct difference between working together for a common objective and being allies. Neither Congress nor the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) can be allies of Mamata Banerjee on her turf in Bengal, but they can work towards a mutually beneficial outcome on the national stage in 2024. The hitch in this analysis is that power politics is as much about other ambitions as it is about your own. The challenge is how to manage a potpourri of personal interests. What keeps the opposition divided, and therefore in opposition at the national level, is the human factor. Bihar, however, has shown that the potential domination of one party can frighten the rest into an alliance of survival. This is the hope that will sustain non-BJP parties in the decisive General Election of 2024. Moreover, Bihar now also has the potential to become a second catchment area of seats in the east, after Bengal.
Luck has so far been Nitish Kumar’s travelling companion. Evidence shows that the two continue to have a rewarding conversation. Important potential contenders for leadership of the opposition have been hit by accidents or laid low by self-injury. Lalu Prasad Yadav, who could always have brought some flourish to the dance, has been hors de combat for more than a decade. Naveen Patnaik will not leave Odisha. Mamata Banerjee has been tripped by close associates, and hampered by poor advice from wind-sniffers, some of whom have already packed their bags and bought tickets to elsewhere.
Nitish Kumar does not waste his appetite on fripperies, or any nominal by-products of power. As a colleague put it, most kurtas become whiter after a wash; his become darker, for the khadi is coarse. He is indifferent to food, drink, or dress. He would much rather pick up a muffler from a friend than buy a scarf. He has limited interest in money. He does not have a personal life. The engineering he studied has been diverted into devising the innumerable bridges that must be constructed in the architecture of alliance politics
The last three months have seen a radical realignment of odds in the betting on the race to win the Prime Minister’s Gold Cup of 2024. Telangana’s K Chandrashekar Rao is a savvy politician but hampered by the comparatively low numbers he can bring to the MPs’ kitty. Akhilesh Yadav has not learnt how to transform a competitive political environment into a winning one. Rahul Gandhi, three years older than Akhilesh Yadav, remains unable to win the confidence of those whose support he needs to become prime minister. Sharad Pawar, who could have been a near-unanimous choice, is burdened by ill health. Arvind Kejriwal will take at least another five years to grow into a multi-provincial presence. Thus far, the only serious comment to electoral prospects in 2024 was a yawn. The Nitish Kumar switch has certainly shifted the narrative.
Time, then, for a hiccup break.
According to the Constitution of India, a prime minister is not appointed by a magic fairy in a fairy tale but by the president of India.
The central duty of the president is to check the credibility of claims made by any aspirant, and ask Lok Sabha to confirm the claims through a vote of confidence within a specified time limit. The element of arbitrary choice has been continuously whittled down. In a famous 1996 decision, then-President Shankar Dayal Sharma, voted into office by Congress, affirmed the principle that the first option would be given to the largest single party when he named BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister of a minority government. This government resigned before being voted out, but a precedent was set.
There are, logically, two scenarios after the next General Election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads NDA to a comfortable majority, the drama ends, and we can all rush to a book of quotations to find TS Eliot’s lines about the world ending not with a bang but a whimper. The story is over till 2029.
In the second scenario, Nitish Kumar’s coalition brings over 30 Lok Sabha seats from Bihar; Mamata Banerjee improves upon her 2019 tally; Congress picks up numbers in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh; Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati dent the BJP bastion in Uttar Pradesh; Kejriwal collects around 15 MPs from Delhi, Punjab and the odd seat elsewhere; incumbency thrives in Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Telangana and Kerala; Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray take half the seats in Maharashtra; and Naveen Patnaik is supremely unruffled in Odisha.
Naveen Patnaik will not leave Odisha. Mamata Banerjee has been tripped by close associates. K Chandrashekar Rao is hampered by low numbers. Akhilesh Yadav has not learnt how to transform a competitive political environment into a winning one. Rahul Gandhi remains unable to win the confidence of those he needs. Sharad Pawar is burdened by ill health. Arvind Kejriwal will take at least another five years to grow into a multi-provincial presence. The Nitish Kumar switch has certainly shifted the narrative
While this disturbs some facts, it does not change the most important one. BJP is still by far the largest single party, and the president of India is duty-bound to give it the first chance to provide a sustainable government. BJP sets about patching together a new “coalition dharma” to attract three or four regional parties. There are no hard lines in coalition politics, as was evident when Congress allied with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Policies, as the discerning might have noticed, are no longer an issue. On the 75th anniversary of our freedom, the most popular policy with voters and most elected politicians is a generous distribution of freebies.
Check with a good betting man to find out what happens next.
There is one certainty, irrespective of what else occurs. Nitish Kumar will not be chief minister beyond early 2024. Tejashwi Yadav will replace him. Nitish Kumar will shift to Nalanda to contest for Parliament.
Here is a suggestion for a future biographer of Nitish Kumar. The title of the book could be Aakhri Dao, or The Last Gambit.