The "Chanakya of Bihar" is lonely today. He is trapped in his own ingenuity. Nitish is shunned by both allies and opponents. Now the people of Bihar are his only hope. This election is a referendum on Nitish and his politics; politics driven by opportunism and self-promotion. At 69, Nitish is fighting the toughest battle of his political life.
The alliance with the BJP is a facade, a mask. It's a marriage that both the partners know will end soon. The BJP will dump him if he does not get a respectable number of seats. Nitish knows that Amit Shah's words that "Nitish is the face of the NDA and he will be the Chief Minister after the elections" intended as a renewal of vows, carries no conviction. No wonder Nitish's demeanor of politeness keeps slipping and there are sudden outbursts of anger at public rallies. His atypical personalised attacks on Tejashwi and father Lalu Yadav are testimony to his being rattled to his core, an expression of his lonely inner self.
Nitish is probably the only politician in Indian history who, despite very limited appeal and dismal party organisation, has remained Chief Minister for three terms. He was the unquestioned leader of Bihar even though his party locked less than a 20% vote share.Since he split with Lalu Yadav along with George Fernandes in 1994, he has led the Janata Dal (United), a party which has no footprint across the state.
His rise to the top was the by-product of the fissures between two arch-enemies: the BJP and the RJD whose conflict was embedded in opposing ideologies. The BJP's Hindutva was in direct contrast with the Mandal politics of Lalu Yadav's RJD. Nitish, the original warrior of Mandal politics, hitched his wagon to that of the BJP, but he never endorsed the BJP's prime brand of Hindutva. He was always careful to not approve of communal politics. Despite being in the Vajpayee cabinet at the center and forming the government in Bihar, he successfully managed to project himself as a secular leader.
He was considered astute and intuitive, a "Chanakya of Bihar" because of how to used both the BJP and the RJD. He successfully pitted them against each other, allowing himself the helm of Bihar and for 15 consecutive years. It's no mean achievement. And most surprisingly, both parties were bigger than Nitish's JDU but agreed to play second fiddle. The BJP wanted to keep Lalu Yadav away from power and Lalu wanted to keep the BJP at bay. Nitish served the purpose of both. But now, the BJP has had enough, and may opt to write him off if it gets the most seats in the election. The writing is on the wall: this time, the BJP has decided to step out of Nitish's shadow and carve its own path.
Two things have ignited the BJP's ambition. One, Nitish is extremely unpopular now. Every survey is stressing this point. In the Lokniti-CSDS survey, 43% people did not want the Nitish government back. Only 38% want him back. His unpopularity is further underlined in the same poll which shows his approval ratings. In 2010, his approval rating was 77%, which climbed to 80% during the 2015 assembly elections but has drastically slipped to 52% at this time. This drop of 28% is the real story of this elections. According to the C-Voter survey, if 25% people are happy with the government's work, then 46% are upset. The BJP has realised that Nitish is no longer valuable for the party, and it is the right time to explore a future without him bogging it down.
Secondly, the Bihar elections since 1990 have been dominated by Mandal warriors. For the first 15 years, till 2005, Lalu Yadav was the lynchpin of the Mandal movement in the state. Now, Lalu Yadav is in jail. His pictures are not visible on RJD postersmand banners. His son Tejashwi has successfully taken over. In his public appearances, he seeks to create a new image for the party. Tejashwi, obviously, does not want to connect with Lalu Yadav's legacy, besmirched with "Jungle Raj" (lawlessness) and social chaos.
Tejashwi has realised that there is no denying the fact that his father awakened the consciousness of the suppressed backward caste, but it was also instrumental in unleashing anarchy. He is aware that, thanks to Lalu Yadav, the RJD's social base will remain intact, but that will not be sufficient to win elections; he has to create a new social base and gain the confidence of the new aspirational class. Which promoted his election promise of 10 lakh government jobs, a promise that is proving to be the game changer and showstopper.
Nitish Kumar was another Mandal warrior. If Lalu Yadav was responsible for the social and political empowerment of the backward and marginalised classes, Nitish was instrumental in making this social group aspirational. In his first term, Nitish not only tried to shrink the anarchy of Lalu's making but also tried to facilitate basic amenities for this class. He focused heavily on education for girls and health
infrastructure in rural areas. He tried to ensure that doctors were available in health centres. But he floundered in the latter part of his second term. Somewhere, he was losing his touch. His third term has been lackluster, to say the least. He looks uncertain and worse, disinterested.
Don't forget that the third Mandal Warrior, Ram Vilas Paswan, is no more. So, at a time when politics is taking a new turn, and post-Mandal politics is spreading its wings, the BJP sees an opportunity and wants to fill the void created by the absence of Lalu Yadav and Paswan and the waning popularity of Nitish Kumar.
In any case, Nitish and the BJP are, more than ever, the very odd couple. Nitish is not comfortable with the Modi-and-Shah version of the BJP. Modi and Shah are not Atal and Advani. Modi and Shah are ruthless practitioners of 'Real' politics. A politics that is transactional, devoid of any moral and ethical dilemmas. With Nitish Kumar tripping over anti-incumbency, they know this is the time to strike.
Every political party worth its salt would like to form its own government, led by its own leader and with its own ministers. The BJP has the manpower, it has a strong organisation, backed by a charismatic leader in Modi, and a committed cadre of the RSS with resources in abundance. So why should it give Nitish Kumar top honours if he can't deliver for the BJP?
Nitish Kumar has outlived his utility for the BJP. He used the BJP to remain in power and the BJP used Nitish to neutralise the impact of Mandal politics. In a way, Nitish helped the BJP to gain legitimacy in the Mandal ecosystem. With that done, Nitish has little more to offer the politics of Hindutva. Now the BJP will see to it that Nitish Kumar is decimated in these elections and for this, it has enrolled Chirag Paswan to target Nitish and his candidates. It is not a coincidence that despite the public proclamations of no going back on its declaration of Nitish as its Chief Minister, the BJP is maintaining a distance from him and keeps him guessing vis-a-vis Chirag Paswan who professes that like Hanuman did for Lord Ram, he is ready to slice open his chest to show that Modi alone resides there.
Where does Nitish go then? His space is shrinking rapidly.
(Ashutosh is a Delhi-based author and journalist.)
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