Power games

Nitish Kumar’s power play in Bihar, while dealing a crippling blow to the entire mainstream opposition in India, sends out the unmistakable message that the BJP has started a no-holds-barred campaign for the 2019 elections.

Published : Aug 02, 2017 12:30 IST

Nitish Kumar being administered the oath of office by Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi on July 27.

Nitish Kumar being administered the oath of office by Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi on July 27.

NITISH KUMAR’S choice of words to describe his return as Chief Minister of Bihar at two different junctures in the past 20 months is a study in contrast. In November 2015, immediately after the Mahagathbandhan—the grand alliance consisting of the Lalu Prasad-led Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Congress and the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)—swept to power defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Chief Minister sought to place the electoral triumph in a larger sociopolitical context with ideological overtones. He stated that the most important message of the victory was the resounding popular acceptance of one development paradigm and the emphatic rejection of another; the Bihar electorate apparently had voted for development with social justice and democracy while categorically repudiating the notion of development that promotes crony capitalism and seeks to cover up this anti-people mission by perpetuating communal divisions in society.

Approximately a year and a half later, when Nitish Kumar broke up the Mahagathbandhan and revived his erstwhile alliance with the NDA and once again took oath of office as Chief Minister, political and ideological formulations were conspicuous by their absence. The single most important thrust of the pronouncements of the four-times-sworn-in Chief Minister was individualistic. “My conscience did not allow me to continue in the Mahagathbandhan,” he said, adding that he would not compromise when it came to corruption in governance and the development of Bihar. The reference to corruption was, of course, in relation to the cases and investigations that came up recently against the first family of the RJD, including party president Lalu Prasad and son Tejashwi Yadav, Deputy Chief Minister in the Mahagathbandhan government.

Political observers and analysts were quick to deduce the rise of the “Me” element in Nitish Kumar’s latest manoeuvre and the abdication of the sociopolitical paradigm he had expounded in November 2015. “The invocation of the ‘my conscience’ phrase is almost like a political Freudian slip. It unravels the urge of a particular type of hyperindividualism that seeks to acquire and cling on to power at the personal level, whatever the social cost,” pointed out the veteran socialist Shivanand Tiwari.

The former JD(U) Rajya Sabha member told Frontline that the maudlin conjuration of “conscience” needed to be analysed in a political and historical framework, both in the immediate and in the medium term. “The leader holds forth on morality, conscience and all that one evening and what does he do in the next six hours? Join hands with the very forces he had castigated as communal and crony capitalist in a hard-fought election barely a year and a half ago. If he was such an epitome of political and personal morality, the right way would have been to dissolve the Assembly and call for a fresh mandate. But what does he do? Creep in less than 24 hours through the back door,” said Tiwari.

Disowning a development model Tiwari also pointed out that it was Nitish Kumar himself who had chosen to present the 2015 electoral victory and the rallying of political forces that created it as a model for the rest of the country to adopt and advance the politics of development with social justice. Tiwari said: “He had held forth that there is a pointer to India as a whole in this massive ratification of the development paradigm. He had explained that this paradigm as well as the political leadership that advanced it were more suited than its rival to the interests of the socially and economically marginalised sections of the country. It was also argued [that] the Bihar Mahagathbandhan paradigm nourished democracy and through that the lives of the people, while the Modi model helped a select few get richer and unleashed economic hardships and social divisions in society, literally debilitating democracy. Now, those were proclamations laden with a great sense of responsibility towards the country, its social ethos and its people. Why is that there is no prick of conscience in the abandonment of this national responsibility?”

Tiwari went on to add that he could not see much merit in Nitish Kumar’s discovery of troubling corruption charges against his erstwhile deputy, Tejashwi Yadav. “In any case, the case against Tejashwi is only at the investigation stage. It may get proved or not. Why not let the law take its on course? What is the need for this hurry?” he asked.

Tejashwi Yadav reflected the sentiment. Talking to Frontline on phone, he said that when Nitish Kumar aligned with the RJD in 2015, his party’s president Lalu Prasad was already convicted on corruption charges. “Where was Nitish Kumar ji ’s moral compunction then?” he asked.

A number of political observers spread across Bihar, including the advocate Ramkumar Choudhary of Arah and Anisur Rehman of Bhagalpur, told Frontline that a closer analysis of the sudden moral righteousness of Nitish Kumar exposed it as completely hollow. “Barely a week before the developments in Bihar, a renowned editor of an academic journal was forced to resign. His crime was that he had made bold to expose the tweaking of rules in relation to special economic zones [SEZs] by the Modi government in order to impart benefit to the tune of Rs.500 crore to the Gautam Adani Group, considered close to the Prime Minister. Nitish ji is indeed crying hoarse about corruption, but why has this slipped his attention?” asked Rehman.

“Scores of such corruption cases involving BJP leaders and friends of the BJP, including in places like Kerala where the BJP is still a fledgling party, have been deliberately ignored by Nitish ji in his overwhelming urge to rejoin the BJP’s political team,” said Choudhary. Rehman was of the view that the current flip-flop and the reasoning advanced for it had brought down Nitish Kumar’s credibility considerably. He was also of the view that this would start reflecting significantly in popular support in due course.

Already, the idea has gained resonance within the JD(U). While two senior Rajya Sabha members of the party—Ali Anwar from Bihar and M.P. Veerendrakumar from Kerala—have openly revolted against Nitish Kumar’s decision, terming it as a travesty of the party’s ideological and political orientation, former national president Sharad Yadav has initiated parleys at multiple levels to evolve concrete steps within the organisation to counter the Nitish Kumar exercise. Ali Anwar was sarcastic when he commented that “Nitish Kumar decided to form an alliance with the BJP listening to his conscience, but my conscience does not allow me to support Nitish Kumar’s decision of forming the government with the BJP”. He said that he felt “the reasons that led to a rift when we walked out of an alliance with the BJP are still relevant. In fact, those reasons are even more relevant under the present circumstances”. Anwar also maintained that he would raise his concerns within the party as and when he got an opportunity.

Realpolitik matters A section of the JD(U) as well as a large number of political observers are of the view that it is the “Me” factor and some special considerations on retaining individual power that had led Nitish Kumar to undertake this manoeuvre. A highly placed source in the JD(U) expounded how this played out at the level of manoeuvres and realpolitik. He said: “It is true that Nitish Kumar meant every word he expressed when he helped form the Mahagathbandhan and projected it as the model alternative for the country in November 2015. But several factors that came up over the next 12 months raised doubts in him about its organisational and electoral efficacy. Apart from this, there were factors that directly challenged his political positioning in Bihar as well as at the Centre. The course of action that Nitish Kumar had imagined for himself had moves that would be initiated to project him as the Prime Ministerial candidate of the united opposition by November 2016, one year since the electoral victory in Bihar. That did not happen. The Congress, which was expected to initiate moves in this direction, did not move one bit. It was evident that for the Congress, Lalu Prasad was a more important political ally. The second upsetting factor was the rise in the credibility and acceptance of Tejashwi Yadav in a matter of six to eight months of the formation of the Mahagathbandhan government. The young leader was seen to have learnt the nuances of statecraft with consummate ease and was being applauded both by his support base and by neutral observers. This development was completely unexpected and Nitish Kumar realised that the JD(U) in Bihar might not be able to demand a higher or even an equal number of seats to contest as the RJD would in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the 2020 Assembly elections. Evidently, Nitish Kumar’s chances of emerging as a powerful national leader or even retaining the Chief Minister’s position in 2020 were getting increasingly doubtful.”

It is in the context of all these apprehensions and insecurities that Nitish Kumar started considering the option of playing second fiddle to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said the highly placed source in the JD(U). “If I am not getting acceptance within the broad opposition ranks as a potential Prime Minister and if there is a possibility that even the Chief Minister’s position would be denied in 2020, why not retain the number one administrative post in Bihar with BJP support? That question increasingly started getting a favourable answer in his mind, and then demonetisation happened. Nitish saw the opportunity to shift sides and proclaimed support for that. The rest, as they say, is history,” he said.

Post-demonetisation, things moved pretty fast, with State BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi facilitating communication with the party’s central leadership. By all indications, the larger political plan was devised and orchestrated by BJP president Amit Shah himself. Apparently, this included deploying the dirty tricks department with the specific aim of targeting the Lalu Prasad family as a whole and clipping the wings of an emerging Tejashwi Yadav. The orchestration moved along with the presidential election. Right from that time, there was a feeling within sections of the JD(U) that the last week of July would be momentous.

Some in the party projected the date as July 28 while others talked about a future date. But then the orchestrated event happened earlier than that, on July 26. Nitish Kumar resigned as Chief Minister, and within minutes Narendra Modi tweeted his approval. Again, within minutes, the BJP convened its Central Parliamentary Board and came up with the decision to support a new Nitish Kumar-led government. It was immediately conveyed to Sushil Kumar Modi in Patna. The numbers, of course, were in place. The JD(U) had 71 MLAs and the BJP and allies 58, which gave the new alliance a majority of 129 in the 243-member Assembly. Later, two independents joined the coalition, taking the number to 131.

Larger plans By all indications, the plans afoot in Delhi that go beyond mere politics visualise a complete subjugation of the Lalu Prasad family with a vigorous pursuit of corruption cases against its members. “Indeed, BJP leaders, including Chief Ministers like Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh, Manohar Lal Khattar in Haryana and Raghubar Das in Jharkhand, are facing colossal charges of corruption, but that would not be followed up in any haste. Union Ministers like Nitin Gadkari too, who are facing umpteen charges, will roam around freely. But Lalu Prasad is the prime mover behind the efforts to build a grand opposition alliance, trying to bring together the Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party and the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party, and he and his political outfit need to be neutralised at any cost,” said the highly placed JD(U) source. The calculation, apparently, is that once Lalu Prasad and the RJD are neutralised, the opposition alliance will collapse on its own, especially given that the Congress’ current leadership is synonymous with lack of political initiative and creativity. Clearly, the Nitish Kumar manoeuvre founded solely on personal aggrandisement and retaining individual political power has dealt a crippling blow not only to the RJD in Bihar but the entire mainstream opposition in India. It remains to be seen how the opposition parties, especially the Congress, face this situation and evolve counter-strategies.

Many smaller political groups representing a wide range of ideological shades and opinions and non-political groups have highlighted points for an opposition action plan that seeks to focus on the BJP’s own corruption and its aggressive pursuit of diversification of land use to favour BJP-friendly corporate groups, including the Adanis. However, this too has remained in the conceptual stage for a long time. The unmistakable message of the Nitish Kumar manoeuvre and its follow-up plans is that the BJP and its top two leaders, Modi and Shah, have already started a no-holds-barred campaign for the 2019 elections. And, as in many instances in the recent past, they have taken by surprise the opposition which is floundering about for a tangible and effective counter-plan.

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