POLITICS

Being Nitish Kumar: The Bihar CM Is At A Crossroad

Kumar is hampered by ineffectual opposition at the Centre and a shaky alliance partner in Bihar.

04/07/2017 4:18 PM IST | Updated 04/07/2017 4:32 PM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

It isn't every day that a political leader lashes out at a party that he or she is sharing power with. At a press conference on Monday, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar launched his most withering attack yet against the Congress Party, which is a junior partner in the so called Grand Alliance that rules the state.

The attack and his support for the Narendra Modi government's major decisions have only bolstered speculation that the leader of the Janata Dal (United) is looking beyond the Grand Alliance with the Congress and Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

Many see Kumar as a man at a crossroads. Or, in other words, is Kumar, with his history of dumping allies, considering breaking up the Grand Alliance and joining hands with the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). Is he wondering what, if anything, is to be gained by sticking with an ineffectual opposition under the leadership of Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi?

Reconnecting with the BJP

It was Kumar who broke off his party's 17-year-long alliance with the BJP when Modi was anointed as the party's prime ministerial candidate. He returned the flood relief money that Modi had given to Bihar in 2010, threw a tantrum when they were featured together in campaign posters, and cancelled a dinner that Modi was likely to have attended.

In the past year, however, Kumar has turned up several surprises in his dealings with the Modi government. It came as a shock to the opposition when Kumar backed BJP's presidential candidate, Ram Nath Kovind, even as the Congress Party nominated another Dalit leader, Meira Kumar, to run against him. The Bihar chief minister had in fact broken twice with other opposition parties — by supporting the Modi government's recent roll out of the Goods and Services Tax, and by supporting the hugely controversial exercise of demonetisation.

Going forward, there is the 2019 national election to consider. On the one hand, Kumar could be the prime ministerial candidate chosen by a united opposition against the BJP and its allies. On the other hand, Kumar must have weighed his chances against Narendra Modi in the event of such contest.

But Kumar's joining hands with Modi would end the possibility of his entering national politics. At a press conference on Monday, Kumar said that he had no "prime ministerial ambitions." But those who have followed his career say that he is too ambitious to shut that door on himself.

Kumar has also never been one to blindly follow the crowd and is determined to maintain his individuality. In supporting some of Modi government's policies, the chief minister is sending out a message at the national level that he is neither anti-reform nor anti-corporate governance.

Breaking With The Grand Alliance

Two years ago, Kumar partnered with arch rival Lalu Prasad Yadav in order to beat the BJP in the Bihar Assembly polls, but it has been clear for some time now, just how ill at ease the chief minister is in the Grand Alliance. Not only does Lalu's larger-then-life personality overshadow his own, the RJD leader and now his family's corruption tainted image is antithetical to Kumar's 'clean' image and brand of politics.

Kumar has steadfastly refused to defend Yadav against allegations of corruption, even when the latter has come under under attack from a local BJP leader. No wonder that the RJD leader tweeted — "BJP ko naye alliance partners mubarak ho. Lalu Prasad jhukne aur darne wala nahi hai. Jab tak aakhri saans hai fasiwadi takton se ladta rahunga... (Congratulations to the BJP for new alliance partners, Lalu Prasad won't bend or be frightened. I will fight fascist forces until my last breath...)."

There is little doubt that it irks Kumar to hear Rabri Devi say that the public wants her son, Deputy CM Tejaswi Yadav, to be Bihar's chief minister. Lalu too has said that it was natural for the "old" to make way for the young.

Is Kumar in a position to upset the apple cart? He is well aware that his politics of development is relying on RJD and Congress' support. It is worth recalling that RJD outperformed JD(U) in the 2015 Assembly polls. While Yadav's party won 80 seats and slightly bettered its vote share to almost 19 percent, the JD(U) won 71 seats, with its vote share dropping from 22.58 percent in 2010 to 16.8 percent.

Again, those who have observed Kumar's career closely believe that he is keeping Lalu at an arms length in order to come across as the more serious minded and senior partner in the Grand Alliance. This could be about setting boundaries rather than breaking away.

Frustration With The Congress

On the national stage, Kumar is frustrated with the Congress Party's failure to unite the opposition and inflict any damage on the BJP. The remarks at Monday's press conference reflected Kumar's frustration.

The chief minister blamed the Congress for its failure to form an alliance in Uttar Pradesh and Assam against the BJP. He said that the Congress Party had failed to unite the opposition around core issues such as farmer distress, while getting embroiled in playing politics over the presidential polls. Kumar also said that he did not have his sights set on becoming the prime minister in 2019. In what apparently was a swipe at Rahul Gandhi, he said: "More than having a face, the opposition should have alternative narratives."

Observers in Bihar suggest taking Kumar's remarks at face value. He dislikes being part of an Opposition that is not making an impact. And the chief minister is particularly displeased with Rahul Gandhi's performance and the Congress' inability to find another leader who would do a better job.

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