30/11/2016 10:31 AM IST | Updated 30/11/2016 12:13 PM IST

What Should We Make Of Nitish Kumar's Surprise Support For Demonetisation?

Principled stand or Machiavellian stratagem?

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has never liked Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The toxic exchanges between the two men go way beyond political feuding. Their infamous hostility is attributed to all kinds of reasons. Some see it as a clash between two strong personalities, while others say that Kumar is more than a little bit envious of Modi's emergence as a national leader despite the taint of the 2002 Gujarat riots.

To bolster his secular credentials, Kumar has treated Modi with contempt and kept him at arms length. 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, cancelled a dinner which Modi was likely to have attended, and broke off his party's 17-year-long alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when Modi was anointed as the party's prime ministerial candidate.

Given that there is no love lost between the two men, Kumar's support for the Modi government's demonetisation drive has come as quite a shock. One would have expected Kumar to challenge his arch rival's most controversial and audacious decision, especially as there are chances of it going terribly wrong, with catastrophic consequences for the ruling BJP. But even as millions of lives have been completely disrupted and some deaths have been attributed to demonetisation, Kumar has refused to join the loud chorus of detractors.

So, the obvious question is why is Kumar supporting Modi when it not only puts him at odds with people inside his own party, the Janata Dal (United), but also with his political allies, Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress Party. Together, they halted the BJP's winning spree in the Bihar state polls in 2015. One is left wondering whether the shrewd politician has some Machiavellian scheme up his sleeve, or whether there is a more simple explanation.

While political analysts differ in their explanations about Kumar's decision, his "principled stand," has thrown his allies into a tizzy. The simple explanation is that Kumar has always been a staunch opponent of black money and corruption, and supporting demonetisation, even if it means backing his rival, goes a long way in boosting his image as a clean politician.

The suspected politics behind the move is what analysts as well as his rivals and allies are scratching their heads over. While some believe that Kumar is indeed taking a "principled stand," others say it is a masterstroke which portrays him as rising above politics, while making a far-sighted political move.

Some believe that he is waving the white flag at the BJP in case he needs them for the state polls in 2020, but his allies are worried that he is distancing himself and trying to carve an independent image for himself with an eye on the 2019 national election.

Nawal Kishore Chaudhary, a noted political analyst and former principal of Patna College, believes that Kumar has gauged the political climate and realized that he is unlikely to have a shot at becoming prime minister in 2019, and so the next best option is to retain his chief ministerial post in the 2020 state polls. And for that he needs allies with an established support base in Bihar because relying on his Kurmi voter base won't get him very far.

"If he could join hands with Lalu, then he could go back to the BJP. He is known for that," said "I have always said that he is a master political craftsmen. Everything is right in politics. What is important is power, power and power, alone."

While it is a truism that there are no permanent enemies or friends in politics, who would have thought that BJP President Amit Shah would be thanking his boss' nemesis just one year after he handed them a humiliating defeat in the 2015 state polls, or that Finance Minister Arun Jaitely would ask him to join a committee to suggest ways to move to a cashless economy.

Some analysts are of the opinion that Kumar would not consider returning to the BJP if Modi remains at the helm of affairs. But what is not subject to opinion is that his relations with Lalu are considerably strained, and some even say that it is unlikely to survive another term. It was the RJD that bagged the highest number of seats in the 2015 Bihar polls. Armed with that knowledge and his support base of Yadavs and Muslims in Bihar, Lalu is probably nurturing grander ambitions for the next polls including projecting his own son Tejashwi Prasad Yadav as the next chief minister.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an RJD insider told HuffPost India that the relations between Yadav and Kumar were fraught with complications on a whole host of issues, including demonetisation, but compromises were reached because the RJD chief wanted to secure his son's interest and future. "He is waiting for Tejashwi to get more experience and mature," the RJD insider said. "Lalu is a mass leader so things like demonetisation don't really effect him, but today's politics is about image. Modi, Nitish, Akhilesh Yadav are all image leaders. He would want his son to be an image leader as well."

"What I can say is that this alliance, like most others, was born out of desperation. Both parties are ready with daggers to plant in each other's back at any time," he added.

It could be because of his son that Yadav has now softened his stand against demonetisation, saying that his only grouse was with its implementation. But all this is proving to be rather embarrassing for the Congress Party, the third party in the Grand Alliance in Bihar, which happens to be leading the charge against demonetisation. Its local leaders are fuming over what they believe is Kumar's plan to emerge as the head of "regional parties or third front" in the 2019 national election.

Meanwhile, Kumar is vehemently denying that he is getting closer to the BJP. "Opponents are trying to politically assassinate me by spreading canards that we are getting closer to the BJP," he recently said, lamenting the "baseless political analysis" on his "principled stand." Lok Janshakti Party' president Ram Vilas Paswan doesn't seem to think so. "If Nitish Kumar comes to the NDA, I will welcome him," he said.

What is noteworthy is that Kumar has not wavered in his support for demonetisation even as the Opposition has highlighted the widespread suffering unleashed by its poor execution. Like Modi, analysts say, the Bihar chief minister sensed that demonetisation would be a popular move despite its many flaws and people will see it as a step in the right direction. Three weeks into its protests against demonetisation, the Opposition has not managed to generate a groundswell of support.

"He (Nitish) is very anti-corruption and very anti-black money," said Sunil Ray, director of the A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna. "He is also someone who is very clear in his approach, he is either for or against it."

Kumar would have you believe that his support is rooted in a desire for good governance, but observers say that politicians rarely act solely out of convictions. "Conviction is a difficult word to use in when it comes to Indian politics," said Sanjay Kumar, director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. "It is very difficult to imagine his support as clean move. What Nitish is practicing is realpolitik. He has always done that."

Sanjay Kumar added that Nitish is not averse to allying with the BJP. "He (Nitish) is keeping that front open," he said.

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