Many dislike Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar due to his lust for power. But Nitish is turning out to be among the shrewdest of politicians in the country today. His every move is now indicative of a brilliant, long-term strategy, of which he is unraveling phase after phase at the opportune time. This is a story of sacrifice and treachery. Nitish’s latest maneuver launches him into the national spectrum in an unprecedented manner. Following to the letter an old script he had envisioned many years ago, he is all set to become the rallying point of anti-Modi forces before the masses exercise their ballots in 2019.
The idea of prime ministership must have gotten into Nitish’s head after he was reelected as the chief minister of Bihar in 2010. His resounding victory was analyzed across the spectrum as a consequence of successful policies and effective administration. The mainstream, which loathed the Gujarat model of development, now began propping up the Bihar model as a counter. The mainstream, which loathed Narendra Modi, began propping up Nitish Kumar as a counter. Despite being a junior ally, some believed Nitish was the best prime ministerial candidate for the NDA. It is probably then that his ambitions swelled, and his careful calculations were set in motion.
Nitish understood the ground realities too well. He knew he would never be the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate. He knew he would never be able to take on Narendra Modi from within the NDA. Nitish had himself been a proponent of the Gujarat model back in the day, and as railways minster he had absolved the Gujarat chief minister of all blame regarding 2002. Of late, his party had begun to perceive Mr. Modi apprehensively, but only with the intention of keeping their Muslim voter base intact. Gradually, he began escalating the issue until both chief minsters were pitted as fierce opponents. Then, when Narendra Modi was made the prime ministerial candidate, he exited the NDA.
Many didn’t expect him to get the kind of beating he did in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. But if one man expected it, and was fully prepared for such an eventuality, it was Nitish himself. Nitish’s goal to become a force to be reckoned with, and a serious contender for the top job, was a long term one and not 2014 oriented. After suffering huge losses, he played his trump card: Jitan Ram Manjhi. Manjhi’s antics paved the way for Nitish’s comeback. What’s more, Manjhi switched sides and extracted a large chunk of seats for his hastily formed political organization from the NDA. This was a political boon for Nitish Kumar, for it weakened his opponents drastically.
When the Manjhi saga was ongoing, the Janata Parivar game began. Mulayam Singh Yadav sought to unite several factions of the erstwhile Janata Dal, which had metamorphosed into regional outfits in time, under one umbrella. Nitish played along, but didn’t go all in for it would jeopardize his own agenda. After aligning with arch-rival Lalu Prasad Yadav for the upcoming elections, he made sure that the Janata Parivar proposal faded into oblivion. Differences as to who would lead the organization in parliament and the paltry number of seats the Samajwadis were offered in the Bihar elections facilitated the disappearance of a potential Janata renaissance.
Piggybacking on the ‘chaaraa-chor’, Nitish returned to power last November. The political arithmetic was such that there was no way he could get re-elected for a third time without an alliance with the RJD. The legal arithmetic was such that a convicted criminal would be barred from holding office, even his party turned out to be the senior ally in terms of seats. And so, leader of the junior alliance partner, Nitish, became Bihar’s chief minister again. People assumed that he would be a puppet chief minister, and that Lalu Prasad Yadav would be the power behind the throne. The mainstream began projecting him as an alternative to Narendra Modi all over again. Only this time, he wasn’t the same mass leader he used to be.
Here, Nitish pulled off another political masterstroke. His party had promised total prohibition in Bihar, a state which was feeling the brunt of excessive alcoholism of late. In what was deemed a highly populist move, he imposed it within months of assuming office. The policy, like prohibition policies world over, is moronic. But its political implications are huge. Firstly, since it was brought in so early in his term, his image of being an effective administrator with an ear on the ground and a commitment to fulfil his promises, has been restored among the masses. Secondly, since it was his promise and he implemented it, there was no scope for his allies or rivals to take any credit. He has successfully cornered and painted every other organization in a bad light. Thirdly, since this move is likely to be the highlight of his government for many months to come, he has shown to the people of Bihar who really is in-charge.
Presently, rivals and allies alike are on the backfoot in Bihar. Nationally, the government is on the backfoot when it comes to the perception battle. The Congress, with a leader like Rahul Gandhi and potential losses in the upcoming assembly elections, is on the backfoot as well. Mamata is busy with the Bengal elections, which she will win but with a thinner majority. The Samajwadis are unlikely to win a majority in the Uttar Pradesh elections next year. Arvind Kejriwal might get a big break in Punjab next year, but right now he’s insignificant. Nitish has seized the moment, and is all set to increase his foothold around the country.
The two big mergers which are slated to take place are with the Ajit Sigh led RLD and the Babulal Marandi led JVM. RLD is the primary Jaat party in Uttar Pradesh. In the upcoming elections, Nitish Kumar hopes to make it big in an alliance with the Congress, with the help of his lieutenant Prashant Kishor. The JVM is a force to be reckoned with in Jharkhand, and with the JDU already having a base in the state, he is hoping to become the primary force over there as well. Many smaller parties are likely to jump onto the bandwagon. Basically, Nitish’s aim is to be the main political force in the alliance that the pseudo-secular parties will botch up for the 2019 elections.
Nitish refused to be a cog in Modi-led or Mulayam-led ecosystem. Now, he wishes to make Kejriwal, Mulayam, Mamata, Lalu and many other junior partners in an association that he will lead. According to his calculations, and he may well be right, the Congress will have no choice but to support this group on his terms.
But this is where it starts becoming tricky for Nitish. Up to now, he made all the right moves. But from here, everything will depend on fate. The Congress might not make much of a headway in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP might wipe out all political competition in Jharkhand. With more than three years to go for the next general elections, it all depends on the union government’s performance in a certain sense. For all we know, Nitish made it to the big league, but to no avail.