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Dilemma makes Nitish enigmatic

In September last year, soon after Trinamool Congress left the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar from Mahatma Gandhi’s karmabhoomi in Champaran launched the campaign for the demanding a special status for Bihar from the central government. This was immediately construed as an application to fill the vacuum created by the withdrawal of support to the UPA government by the Trinamool Congress. The message that he could support any dispensation at the centre initially left his major ally the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bewildered.

The BJP leadership rightly realised that it needed the expertise of a trapeze artist to keep a balance between ambition of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to lead the party in the next Lok Sabha polls and those, including Kumar, opposing it. The difference of opinion between Kumar and the BJP is just not about leadership but also about the timing of the poll.

Despite fluid political situation prevailing at the centre with one after another ally withdrawing from the UPA, the Janata Dal (United), unlike the BJP, has looked to be in no hurry to force an early poll. On several occasions Kumar has claimed that the ruling party at the centre would complete term in office. He, however, has been careful from day one not to be portrayed as unabashed admirer of Congress leadership. ‘The Congress is adept at managing crises, but the longer this government survives the worse would be their fate in the next Lok Sabha election,’ has been Kumar’s common refrain in the past six-months.

Despite his party enjoying a majority in Bihar legislative assembly on its own, what stops Nitish Kumar from snapping ties with BJP, which has now taken several steps towards anointing Narendra Modi as party’s face in 2014 polls. Kumar is no short-sighted politician and would never allow political aggression to overcome discretion. He judges his political strength not from the numbers in the House but from the performance of the parties in the last assembly polls in Bihar in 2010.

During the last assembly poll in Bihar, the charisma of Nitish Kumar as administrator was less exceptional than his role as moulder of strategy using both traditional and modern paradigms, which resulted in extraordinary coordination with the BJP and eventual pulling-off of a historic win.

By 2005 the phase of social engineering in Bihar was over and state was moving towards social adjustment. Till then it was difficult to believe that Bihar could actually be exorcised from the djinn of Lalu Prasad. He had led his party to a handsome performance in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls and had taken command of the Railway ministry at the centre.

Here it’s important to differentiate between social engineering and social adjustment. Social engineering was coming to power of Lalu Prasad and subsequent political empowerment of the other backward classes. But he failed to deliver on the social and economic fronts. Bihar craved for social and economic development, which led to social adjustment that is the upper castes coming to accept an OBC Nitish Kumar as their political leader, which brought political change. Five years later, in the winter of 2010 the process of social adjustment graduated to what be called social development. Taking a cue from the Supreme Court order on the Mandal Commission report, the Nitish Kumar government put into process the act of keeping the creamy layer out of the benefit of quota without formally announcing it. However, in winning the election, the hard work of good governance, which acted as catalyst for social change, could not be overlooked.

While Nitish Kumar kept BJP on tenterhooks throughout his first term, the poll strategist in him saw merit in retaining the saffron party in the run up to the polls. While lot of song and dance was made about Nitish Kumar requesting Narendra Modi’s non-presence in Bihar, he quietly wooed and harnessed the strength of his partner party to the benefit of the alliance. He saw what everybody else missed – emergence of the BJP stronger from the poll.

The exploitation of the strength of BJP by Nitish Kumar to spur his political campaign was the story of the 2010 polls. A careful analysis of the poll campaign would amply highlight this factor. Nitish was conscious of the pent up rage of the landowning forward castes on the issue of land reforms. So, he left it to the BJP to address the issue vigorously so as to maintain his tenuous foothold among the upper/intermediary caste voters.

The forward castes, in 2010, were further consolidated by effectively raising the scepter of a revivified Lalu Prasad. People were effectively reminded about the Congress-Lalu alliance of the past and this ensured the one-piece delivery to Nitish of the Brahmin-Bhumihar mandate. With economic and social factors like development and law and order dominating the polls, BJP, on the other hand, then did well to steer clear of friction with JD(U), especially on the issue of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi campaigning in the state. In the caste-calibrated society of Bihar, Narendra Modi did not have had an apparent spontaneous appeal for any particular section of the voters but the potential to consolidate the minorities against the NDA.

However, 2014 would be different as Bihar BJP will be unable to keep Modi at bay as it did in 2010. This would make Nitish either accept Modi or leave BJP for some other partner. He has the charisma to stand on his own but as of now lacks confidence to go to polls without a partner. Let’s see whether he gambles on his appeal or plays safe by retaining the old partner.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor,
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