With elections in Bihar around the corner, the national political scene has come to life. The stakes for this edition of the Bihar elections are unusually high, higher than they have been for a long time. For one, it is after decades that one of the national players which is in government, is a serious contender. And two, it is a battle of survival for stalwarts who have ruled the state amongst themselves for twenty five years.
In a sense, more than winning the elections, there are too many people who cannot afford to lose. The BJP had expanded its foothold gradually in the state until its meteoric rise in the general elections. The Modi-wave and a divided opposition permitted current petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan to pull off an Amit-Shah in Bihar. Considering that this is the first big election after 2014 (Maharashtra and Haryana are so close to the general elections that they traditionally vote the same way), Bihar will be a test for both the BJP’s administration and politics. The JDU was decimated in 2014. But they stuck to their anti-Modi stance and are ready to fight another election on the same plank. Considering a two-term anti-incumbency, this will be for them too, a political as well as an administrative test. For Lalu and Paswan, a lease of life seems to have extended arresting their fall into insignificance. Paswan already made full use of it in 2014, but how they capitalise on it this time around will seal their political fate.
The current scenario – too many people with too much to lose, unusual political alignments and realignments, resurrection of insignificant political forces – has been the making of one man’s ego. An able administrator, he could have become an indispensable cog in the present arrangement. That political ambitions overpowered him, is unfortunate.
In 2003, the then railway minister Nitish Kumar visited Gujarat. He attended a function organised by the Adani Group. He shared the dais with the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. He started his address by telling those present that one day their chief minister’s service will be needed outside Gujarat, and that the entire country would benefit from it. This, as is mentioned earlier was in 2003, a year after 2002.
The Vajpayee government of the time was a coalition of over twenty parties. But most of the BJP’s allies deserted it either before or right after the 2004 general elections. The exits were attributed to the BJP’s inaction against Modi in the aftermath of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots. This they believed, had damaged the inclusive credentials Vajpayee had worked so hard to build. But Nitish Kumar, BJP’s main ally from the state of Bihar, stuck to his guns. He continued to be part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.
Nitish’s arch-rival Lalu Prasad Yadav ruled Bihar from 1990 to 1997. After corruption charges against him escalated, his wife was moved from the chief minister’s kitchen to the chief minister’s office. She ruled as his surrogate until 2005. This was how Lalu functioned- smoothly, without giving the slightest damn. The Lalu years of Bihari history are known as the jungle-raj era. Corruption, crime and thuggery were rampant right from the highest to the lowest of levels. That’s exclusively what those fifteen years are remembered for.
After the 2004 general elections, Nitish’s JDU and the BJP were out of power in both the centre and the state. However, their alliance remained strong and determined. In the November of 2005, the NDA under his leadership came to power in Bihar. It seemed like a new dawn for the state after those jungle-raj days. And unlike how situations like these typically pan out, this wasn’t a damp squib. Nitish initiated several developmental projects. New roads were laid, bridges were built, vacancies for teachers and doctors were filled, criminals were arrested, the police force was strengthened. Bihar experienced a double digit GDP growth rate. He stormed back to power five years later in 2010, the JDU-BJP combine swept the elections.
But the NDA was at an all-time low across India at the time. A year ago, the country had rejected Advani and chosen to give Manmohan a second term instead. Narendra Modi was fast emerging as the only viable option the BJP had to make a comeback. That’s the time the idea that he too could emerge as an alternative choice to lead the NDA to power in 2014 got into Nitish. Whether it was planted by a sycophant or it was just a politician’s typical daydream is something we will never know. All we know is that it seized him completely. Suddenly, the fact that his party was actually a junior member in the alliance without a support base outside Bihar didn’t matter. Nor did the fact that he genuinely appreciated Modi’s work and that his chief-ministerial experience was of barely one term. Reality and reason when out the window.
Nitish identified Narendra Modi as the only obstacle that stood between him and prime ministership. How accurate such an identification was, is debatable. Being the second best man for a job is very different from being the second best political bet, and this was the first miscalculation that Nitish made. His second miscalculation was that he was a politically indispensable ally and that he would be consulted when the NDA chose a prime ministerial candidate. (To be fair to him, the RSS and the Modi camp were the only ones who didn’t make that error.) Nitish began opposing Modi openly. He jumped on to the pseudo-secular ship and blamed Modi for the Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002. The more evident it became that Modi would be BJP’s choice, the shriller his protests became. But the BJP did not blink. When the announcement finally came, Nitish was forced to walk out of the alliance.
Nitish Kumar was instrumental in the rise of India’s most backward state. Today, he is joining hands with a felon for political survival. His party is uniting with other parties who promote the same gunda-raj that he brought down. Had he accepted Modi’s rise five years back, he would be sitting pretty with several MPs and union ministers in the centre. His third term of chief ministership would be assured. And most importantly, cooperating and effective central and state governments would have been a boon to the state of Bihar.
Nitish is referred to as a modern day Chanakya. A man unable to pick the right battles is, I’m afraid, hardly worthy of such a tag.