Nitish Kumar Should Stop Dreaming Of Prime Ministership

13/05/2016 8:59 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Adnan1 Abidi / Reuters
Bihar's chief minister and leader of Janata Dal United party Nitish Kumar gestures during an interview with Reuters in the eastern Indian city of Patna January 8, 2012. When India launched reforms to open up its state-stifled economy 20 years ago, many states surged ahead, leaving behind the 3.5 percent "Hindu rate of growth" that had plagued the decades after the country's independence from Britain in 1947, and with it Bihar. Picture taken January 8, 2012. To match Insight INDIA-BIHAR/ REUTERS/Adnan Abidi (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS HEADSHOT)

‘Country-made spurious liquor kills 136’. It’s a news headline from Gujarat, 2009. In alcohol-free Gujarat, as in Pakistan, moonshine deaths are not uncommon. Such a tragedy in Bihar cannot be ruled out.

Oh wait, it’s already happened. In two separate incidents in April last week, four people have died of country-made hooch. If such an incident takes place on a larger scale, there is little doubt that Nitish Kumar’s policy of complete prohibition will be blamed for it.

Amongst the biggest political changes in India over the past decade or so is the rise of the woman voter as an independent constituency. Nurturing this constituency has been one of the key game-changers for Kumar in Bihar.

Kumar is virtually running an all-India prohibition campaign, invited by various women’s groups in states including Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan. The effort could come crashing down one fine day.

Amongst the biggest political changes in India over the past decade or so is the rise of the woman voter as an independent constituency. Nurturing this constituency has been one of the key game-changers for Kumar in Bihar. It’s one of the ways through which Kumar, despite a mere 4% vote of his own Kurmi caste, won a third consecutive term as the chief minister of a state where caste rules the roost.

Having won a third term, Kumar is making a bid to be India’s next prime minister in 2019. It’s only fair that a former union minister, a three-term Bihar chief minister, has such an ambition. In post-Modi India, presidential style elections are the new normal. If a three-term Gujarat CM can become PM, why can’t Bihar achieve the same?

In post-Modi India, presidential style elections are the new normal. If a three-term Gujarat CM can become PM, why can’t Bihar achieve the same?

Except that the BJP is a national party, and the only other pan-India party is the Congress. Workers of the RSS, who do the hard work of winning in elections, back the BJP. The Congress is backed by historical roots in different parts of the country, from Arunachal to Kerala. Not only does Kumar’s party have no presence outside Bihar, even in Bihar his party, the Janata Dal (United), is a very weak organisation.

He may be a clever politician who’s won a third successive term in Patna, but he has never won an election without a pre-poll alliance. In 2019, Nitish will have to continue his alliance with the Congress and the Lalu Yadav-led Rashtriya Janata Dal. Given the seat sharing in 2015 assembly elections, Kumar’s party can contest at best 17 of 40 seats in Bihar. Even if the JD(U) wins all 17, can you really become India’s prime minister with 17 seats?

In three years’ time, Kumar cannot build a party organization and a presence in a chunk of states outside Bihar. Merging a few small parties and appealing to the Kurmi voter in eastern Uttar Pradesh won’t make a huge difference. Besides, it is presumptive that the Kurmi in Uttar Pradesh will identify with the Bihar chief minister or his party. A pan-India presidential campaign without the semblance of a party is futile.

nitish kumar

In a presidential style campaign a la Narendra Modi, Kumar will go around India selling his achievements as Bihar chief minister. Regardless of his performance as chief minister, Bihar is still a very poor and backward state, and it is not credible to sell a “Bihar model”. A look at the pathetic state of Bihar’s capital city, Patna, is enough bad advertisement for Bihar.

The only way Nitish Kumar can ever become India’s prime minister is a third front kind of coalition, supported by the Congress or the BJP. Such a scenario cannot be ruled out, considering the 2014 results did not disturb the vote shares of political parties in the way that it did the Congress’.

However, in a coalition situation, Kumar as consensus choice of a motley group will depend on various factors. For one, why will a party from Uttar Pradesh, Odisha or Tamil Nadu, with much more seats than Nitish Kumar, support him as the consensus candidate for prime minister?

Nobody should be faulted for ambition. As Kumar’s alliance partner Lalu Yadav famously said, everybody wants to be prime minister. “But I am not in a hurry,” Yadav had said, “You don’t become prime minister by running helter skelter without a plan.”

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