Bihar Assembly election

Nitish Kumar's flip-flop and fall

Print edition : November 20, 2020

Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar at an NDA rally in Ludhiana in Punjab on May 10, 2009. This meeting of the then Chief Ministers of Gujarat and Bihar respectively became a turning point in the relations between the JD(U) and the BJP. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Nitish Kumar suffers from a crisis of credibility because of his flip-flops vis-a-vis the Bharatiya Janata Party and the apparent failure of his campaign theme contrasting his ‘good governance’ with Lalu Prasad’s ‘jungle raj’ to convince the electorate.

At a meeting with the top office-bearers of the Janata Dal (United) on June 29, Nitish Kumar, its president and leader of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar, adopted “sushasan (good governance)” under him (2005-2020) and all-out “anarchy” during the 15 years of the Lalu Prasad-Rabri Devi regime (1990-2005) as the central theme of the NDA’s campaign and asked its leaders and cadres to explain the “qualitative difference” between the two regimes to voters. However, as the electorate hit the polling stations, this campaign theme seems to have fallen flat.

In his campaign meetings, the Chief Minister is unable to explain his dramatic flip-flops that are still fresh in the memory of the electorate—particularly new-generation voters—which voted decisively for the Mahagathbandhan consisting of the JD(U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress in the 2015 elections. New voters have no memory of Lalu Prasad’s tenure.

Nitish Kumar became Chief Minister for a third term on November 20, 2015, after the previous version of Mahagathbandhan secured 177 seats against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 53. The mandate was loud and clear: the electorate had empowered him to govern Bihar for the next five years on the basis of the Mahagathbandhan’s programmes and policies and had rejected the BJP.

Says Prem Kumar Mani, a Hindi author and social activist: “Nitish Kumar’s return to the BJP as an ally—the party the electorate had decisively rejected—amounts to ditching the mandate of the people. The voters had reposed faith in him as the leader of the Mahagathbandhan. They celebrated their verdict against the BJP and expected Nitish Kumar to carry on as the Mahagathbandhan Chief Minister for the next five years. They feel cheated now, with Nitish Kumar going back to speaking on 15 years of the Lalu Prasad-Rabri Devi regime and failing to explain the dramatic manner in which he returned to the Narendra Modi-led BJP, which is in their recent memory.”

With Nitish Kumar at its helm, the JD(U)-RJD-Congress Mahagathbandhan governed the State for 19 months (November 20, 2015-July 27, 2017). In a sudden turn of events he resigned and was sworn in by the Governor Kesri Nath Tripathi within 24 hours of his resignation as the NDA’s Chief Minister. His action stunned his allies—the RJD and the Congress—and shocked the electorate at large.

His inability to explain the U-turn he took as recently as three years ago has come in the way of convincing voters about 15 years of his “sushasan” and 15 years of Lalu’s “jungle raj”. It is the primary reason for Nitish Kumar turning desperate and using foul words in this election against Tejashwi Prasad Yadav—Lalu Prasad’s son and leader of the RJD-Congress-Left Mahagathbandhan—engaging him in what has become the toughest battle in his political life.

Tejashwi’s poser to Nitish

When the Bihar Assembly was convened on July 28, 2017, for a floor test of Nitish Kumar’s majority as the NDA’s Chief Minister, Tejashwi, who had been the Deputy Chief Minister, asked him some pointed questions: “You had talked about Sangh-mukt Bharat. How will you explain your flip-flop of going back to the BJP fold? You had said, ‘Mitti mein mil jayenge, BJP mein nahin jayenge’ [I will be ruined but will never return to the BJP camp]. What has happened now? You had got into an alliance with the RJD when its president, Lalu Prasad, was already ‘tainted’ in the fodder scam cases. Did you not know then about the RJD? You have dumped the RJD on the pretext of an investigation agency lodging an FIR [first information report] against me and my family. Will you ask the Prime Minister to bring in a law prescribing that no person facing any FIR can become a Minister? How will you explain your conduct to the Dalits, backward classes and the minorities who voted for the Mahagathbandhan and against the BJP in 2015?”

Nitish Kumar won the vote of confidence in the House on that day but failed to answer Tejashwi’s questions. These questions are haunting him even now, with the voters asking the same and hooting him at his rallies at various venues in north, south and central Bihar.

In fact, Nitish Kumar joined the JD(U)-RJD-Congress Mahagathbandhan in 2015 after eight years of ideological battle with Narendra Modi’s brand of politics (2009-2015) and with a “vow” to never to return to the aggressive Hindutva agenda of the BJP in the post-L.K. Advani-A.B. Vajpayee era. He had painstakingly created a background to fight against Narendra Modi.

Within four years of forming the government with the BJP in 2005, Nitish Kumar, displaying a proclivity to emerge as a credible secular, socialist leader in Ram Manohar Lohia’s mould, began treating his Gujarat counterpart, Narendra Modi, who was tainted by the 2002 riots in Gujarat, as an “illicit” element in the JD(U)-BJP pair. Referring to Modi as a “third party” in 2009, he famously said, “The Bihar NDA has nothing to do with the ‘third party’ from the outside.” Nitish Kumar’s “third party” reference irked the pro-Narendra Modi lobby in the Bihar unit of the BJP. Its leaders Giriraj Singh and Rameshwar Chourasia praised Modi on and off. Some BJP Members of Parliament from Bihar fumed at Nitish Kumar deriding Modi and “hijacking” the NDA in Bihar. But Nitish Kumar did not bother. “We have a Modi [Sushil]”, he said, referring to Sushil Kumar Modi, the BJP leader in the State, rejecting the need for “another Modi [Narendra]”.

Turning point

Nitish Kumar shied away from pronouncing Narendra Modi’s name and detested even his shadow. But the NDA’s show of strength on May 10, 2009, in Ludhiana in Punjab became a turning point in the relationship between the JD(U) and the BJP. It created a situation which Nitish Kumar had tried to avoid in his pursuit of pushing himself as a credible socialist-secular alternative at the national level.

The NDA had projected Advani as the Prime Minister as it went for its biggest show of strength in Ludhiana. It invited all its Chief Ministers, including Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao who had broken away from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) to join the NDA, adding to the enthusiasm in the BJP ranks.

The BJP could not have avoided Narendra Modi at the rally. In a bid to avoid facing Modi, Nitish Kumar suggested that the then JD(U) president Sharad Yadav attend it.

But his “friend” Arun Jaitley phoned Nitish Kumar telling him, “Advaniji personally wishes your presence.” Sanjay Jha, the current Bihar Water Resources Minister, was the link between Jaitley and Nitish Kumar. Jaitley assigned Sanjay Jha to persuade Nitish Kumar to attend the meeting. After much “cajoling”, Sanjay Jha got Nitish Kumar to agree to reach the rally in a chartered flight and return the same day. Nitish Kumar and Sanjay Jha landed in Chandigarh and drove straight to the rally venue. But Narendra Modi had his own plan. As Nitish Kumar stepped on the dais, Modi, who was at the other end of the row, moved quickly and clutched Nitish Kumar’s hand and held it aloft for the crowd to see and the cameramen to click. Before Nitish Kumar could recover his wits, Modi had occupied his assigned seat.

As Sankarshan Thakur narrates in the book The Brothers Bihari, “Nitish was fuming. When he got back into the car with Sanjay Jha after the rally, he got angry at Sanja Jha and said: Isi liye yahan laaye the? Aap jaante thhe kya hone waala hai, provoke kiya gaya hai mujhe aur aapne mujhe phasaya (Is this why you brought me here? You knew this was going to happen. I have been provoked and you got me here for this).”

The picture of Nitish Kumar and Modi, palms clutched and hands raised together, appeared in the national dailies, making Nitish Kumar livid. He stopped talking to Sanjay Jha and expressed his indignation to Sushil Modi.

Modi’s visit to Patna

In June 2010, about five months ahead of the Assembly elections in Bihar, the BJP organised its national executive meet at Patna. Narendra Modi had come to Patna for the first time in many years. Nitish Kumar communicated to Sushil Modi that he would host a dinner for the BJP leaders at his 1-Aney Marg house. But on the morning of the day of the dinner, two newspapers, Hindustan and Dainik Jagaran, brought out full-page advertisements showing the same picture of Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi in Ludhiana holding hands aloft and the text mentioning the Gujarat Chief Minister’s largesse of Rs.5 crore for flood victims in Bihar.

Nitish Kumar was shocked and cancelled the dinner. He returned the donation of Rs.5 crore to Gujarat. He deputed Rakesh Dubey, an officer of the rank of the Deputy Superintendent of Police, to investigate who were behind the advertisements brought out in the name of “Friends of Bihar”.

Narendra Modi used the rally at Gandhi Maidan in Patna on the concluding day of the BJP’s national executive to attack Nitish Kumar without naming the latter. “You [Bihar people] have been in the ditch for long. Come to Gujarat to see what development is all about,” he said. Nitish Kumar communicated his displeasure to Arun Jaitley. Jaitley persuaded him to stay calm until the elections in November 2010, assuring him that Narendra Modi would not get precedence over him (Nitish Kumar) in the NDA’s scheme of things.

In the 2010 Assembly elections, the Nitish Kumar-led NDA won 206 of the 243 Assembly seats, with the JD(U) securing 115, nearly a majority on its own in the Bihar House. The BJP had lost the 2009 Lok Sabha election to the UPA led by Manmohan Singh. Armed with the numbers on his side, Nitish Kumar began lobbying with the BJP top brass—Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Arun Jaitley and Nitin Gadkari—against Narendra Modi.

Drubbed in the Lok Sabha election, the BJP leaders were subdued because they did not want to lose Nitish Kumar, the NDA Chief Minister of a politically significant State. But after the 2010 victory, Nitish Kumar began talking more about his commitment to “secular values”, the “idea of India” and an “inclusive society” suggesting that Narendra Modi was unfit for what India stood for. Narendra Modi retained his position as the Gujarat Chief Minister for a third term in 2012 and aggressively pushed himself up in the party against an ageing Advani.

Within a few months of retaining his position in the party, Narendra Modi consolidated his following in the BJP, breaking Advani’s lobby that comprised leaders such as Sushma Swaraj, Murli Manohar Joshi, Nitin Gadkari and Arun Jaitley. He compelled his party leadership to declare him the chairman of the BJP’s campaign committee at the party’s convention in Goa in May 2013.

But Nitish Kumar, who was confident that he was the most credible foil for Narendra Modi’s brand of politics, first tried to check Modi using his long relationship with the lobby around Advani and, when he failed at it, he finally dumped the BJP in June 2013 and decided to go it alone in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Allying with the RJD

At this stage, Nitish Kumar failed to recognise that he was never a mass leader of Lalu Prasad’s stature and had never won an election on his own. He lost the 2014 election to the BJP badly, with the JD(U) winning only two Lok Sabha seats from Bihar. A vanquished Nitish Kumar had no option but to align with Lalu Prasad’s RJD, which too needed him to survive against Modi’s rise.

Ending the 20-year-long conflict with his friend-turned-rival Lalu Prasad, he became part of the RJD-JD(U)-Congress Mahagathbandhan in 2015, giving a call for “Sangh-mukt Bharat (Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-free India) against Modi’s call for “Congress-mukt Bharat”. The RJD provided the mass base to the Mahagathbandhan and Nitish Kumar launched a calibrated attack on Modi. “Mitti mein mil jayenge lekin BJP mein wapas nahin jayenge,” he repeatedly said in his campaign meetings. He expanded the letters BJP to mean “Badka Jhootha Party [The biggest party of liars]”. He derided Modi for promising two crore jobs and Rs.15 lakh into everyone’s account. “He [Modi] can only deliver speeches, not his promises,” Nitish Kumar said.

Everything was going fine with the Mahagathbandhan with Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister and Lalu Prasad’s son Tejashwi as his deputy until the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) lodged an FIR against Lalu Prasad, Rabri Devi and Tejashwi and others on July 5, 2017, in an Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) tender case and raided Lalu Prasad’s Patna house. The CBI framed Tejashwi in the case with Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi and soon the JD(U) demanded Tejashwi to “explain” his position to the Chief Minister. Tejashwi met the Chief Minister and explained that he was barely 15 years old when the so-called IRCTC case cropped up and he had no role whatsoever in that case. But Nitish Kumar, under the pretext of Tejashwi’s involvement in corruption, dumped the Mahagathbandhan and jumped back onto the BJP bandwagon overnight.

Lalu Prasad’s contribution

If the new generation of voters remember Nitish Kumar’s dramatic flip-flops, the elders recall Lalu Prasad’s contributions to the cause of the backwards, Dalits and minorities during his rule. Lalu Prasad, who had taken over the reins of Bihar in its own historical context, had done phenomenally well with regard to improving the living standards of the poor. For instance, he got 60,000 pucca houses built under the Indira Awas Yojana for the poor in 600 blocks of undivided Bihar within two years. By 1996, his government had 3,00,000 liveable houses built for the poor, according to data available with the Rural Development department. He worked for the urban poor by building Bhola Paswan Sashtri bhavans in the upmarket areas of Patna and other cities.

Old-timers among the poor find it hard to digest Nitish Kumar’s criticism of Lalu Prasad’s measures to empower them and improve their life. And herein lies Nitish Kumar’s dilemma in explaining the voters about his “sushasan” and Lalu Prasad’s “jungle raj”.

Nalin Verma is an independent journalist and media educator.