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While Opposition Cohesion Grows, Nitish Kumar Is Facing Increasing Isolation

Nitish could find himself on the wrong side.

01/12/2016 6:44 PM IST | Updated 01/12/2016 7:14 PM IST
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Seen against this backdrop, Nitish Kumar may well have backed himself into a corner with his open support for demonetisation.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's growing isolation within opposition ranks was evident when his fiery counterpart from West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, stormed through Patna on Wednesday on the second leg of her mass countrywide campaign against demonetisation.

Not only did she avoid meeting Nitish, once a clear favourite to lead an anti-BJP front in the future, she dropped broad hints that she considered him a "traitor" and warmed up to his ally, Lalu Prasad Yadav, who rubbed it in with a chummy photo op of wife Rabri Devi and Mamata in a bear hug. And while Nitish studiously kept away from Mamata's rally in Patna, round the corner from his residence, Lalu filled the gap by sending senior leader and top aide Raghuvansh Prasad Singh and three others to share the dais with her.

Mamata and Lalu weren't the only ones to brush Nitish aside. The JD(U)'s most prominent face in Delhi, Rajya Sabha MP Sharad Yadav, too cocked a snook by rejoining the opposition's daily strategy meeting in Parliament on Wednesday. It was a signal that he did not agree with Nitish's expressed support for Narendra Modi's demonetisation decision, which had earned the Bihar CM the dubious distinction of being praised by BJP president Amit Shah.

While neither Nitish nor Lalu (or Sharad Yadav for that matter) want to destabilize the JD(U)-RJD coalition government in Bihar, it is clear that they are all on different wavelengths on Modi's demonetization gambit. And the emerging picture is not pretty for Nitish. He has not only become suspect in the eyes of the larger opposition, there are serious concerns within his own party and among his Bihar coalition partners that he is looking to build bridges with the BJP for his future politics.

The suspicions that he has aroused among erstwhile friends and allies effectively rule him out as a possible candidate to lead a united opposition front in 2019. Mamata's traitor salvo at Nitish shuts him out of future calculations, which means that the Bihar CM will have to rethink his politics.

The open snub to the man who was once the blue-eyed boy of the opposition comes amid a growing perception that the Modi government is on the backfoot about demonetization. The mood in the opposition has changed since the flop Akrosh Diwas rallies on Monday when the anti-BJP parties seemed to be working at cross purposes as each did its own thing that day. The Left organized a bandh, Mamata held a rally in Kolkata, the Congress waffled, and so on.

Mamata's traitor salvo at Nitish shuts him out of future calculations, which means that the Bihar CM will have to rethink his politics.

Opposition protests against demonetisation may well have petered out after that but for certain telltale signs that demonetization may not be panning out the way the government had hoped. One such sign is recent reports on bank collections of demonetised currency. The collection so far has been far higher than anticipated, around Rs9 lakh crores in just three weeks. At this rate, banks may actually mop up all the Rs14.5 lakh currency in circulation by December 30, which is the last date for depositing demonetized notes.

If this happens, it knocks the bottom out of the government's claims about the vast quantities of black money in the Indian system. It also deprives the government of expected windfall profits to the tune of Rs3.5 lakh-Rs4 lakh crore. The government had hoped to redistribute this amount among the poor through deposits in Jan Dhan Yojna accounts.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with Delhi Chief Minister RJD Chief Lalu Yadav during her swearing-in ceremony.

The second sign that demonetisation is not quite on track is the new Voluntary Disclosure of Income Scheme introduced in the just-passed amendment to the Income Tax Act. Opposition leaders argue that if black money holders were going to be given a second amnesty scheme, then why did the government plunge the country into a crisis through shock demonetization? VDIS part 2 knocks the bottom out of Modi's justification for demonetisation, said one leader who did not wish to be identified.

A third sign, pointed out another opposition leader, is the government's reluctance to face a vote in the Lok Sabha on an opposition-sponsored resolution opposing demonetisation. The government has the numbers to defeat the motion so why is it running scared of a debate, asked one opposition MP.

It seems the BJP is worried that cracks in the NDA may surface if there is a vote because Shiv Sena has been critical of demonetisation from the very beginning. If this should happen, it would damage Modi's strong man image.

A fourth sign is the collapse of the government's plan to rope in chief ministers of different states to join a committee to suggest short-term relief measures for the difficulties being faced by people and prepare a road map to move towards a digitized economy. While CPM's Manik Sircar, Tripura CM, and Congress party's V Narayanswamy, Puducherry CM, have declined to join the committee, even TDP's Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra CM, seems to be developing cold feet. In fact, he spoke to Andhra journalists on Tuesday evening and said demonetisation distress was starting to resemble a "national calamity".

Seen against this backdrop, Nitish Kumar may well have backed himself into a corner with his open support for demonetisation. If the current currency crunch worsens and the economy heads towards a slowdown, Nitish could find himself on the wrong side.

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