Whatever the results on May 23, the status report on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is ready - he has been downsized.
Kumar, 68, has morphed into the nowhere man of Indian politics because of his frequent change of partners across the ideological spectrum. He may still be the Chief Minister of Bihar but his glum face as he shared the stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally late last month telegraphed his state of misery. Kumar refused to join the frenzied chants of "Bharat Mata ki Jai"; he sat silently instead.
Kumar prides himself on his poker face. Once during a television interview in the Chief Minister's house in Patna, I had to stop him and point out that his answers lacked punch. Kumar understood immediately and said "let's reshoot" but also said "I am not like other Bihari politicians who play for laughs". The snide aside was for Lalu Yadav, go-getter of punchlines and his sometimes-partner-sometimes-enemy.
The remark also underlined how Kumar has always considered himself a cut above his rivals. At that point, his biggest opponent was Modi in the avatar of Gujarat Chief Minister. In 2015, Kumar ended his rivalry with Lalu and strapped himself into an alliance with the Congress and him; in 2017, he cut himself loose from that to return to the BJP-led NDA.
In a public letter issued today, Lalu has dubbed him an "opportunist" before the final phase of voting in Bihar, a charge not many can disagree with.
The deal with Modi and Shah may have got the Yadav clan, wrangling with a series of corruption charges, off Kumar's back, but it also spelled finis for his prime ministerial ambitions, which he had nursed for decades. Till then, Kumar was considered a likely consensus candidate for Prime Minister within the opposition. Now, he is one of many allies of the BJP.
Amit Shah, the toughest bargainer in Indian politics, did give him as many seats for this election (17) as the BJP, but this is political expediency, not a reflection of any sort of exalted status for Kumar within the NDA.
"Kumar has lost his rutba (status), he is no more a dabang (heavy-hitter) which matters hugely in Bihar politics," said a leader from Lalu's party. "Strangely, Lalu, imprisoned and barred from contesting elections is still a dabang for Bihar. Also, people know that Kumar has lost his fight with Modi. The electorate does not like perceived losers".
Kumar, who comes from the Kurmi caste which forms barely four percent of the complex Bihar caste equation, has been piggybacking for years on politicians such as Yadav who have a large caste base. In all his somersaults for office, Kumar has seen no grinding down of his image as that of an honest politician driven to confront the corrupt. His assiduously cultivated image of "Sushasan Babu" (good administrator) who ended the "jungle raj" of Lalu Yadav gave him huge elbow room to ensure that his sordid power plays for office were given a benign interpretation.
However, this time around, even that image has been dented, particularly with Lalu's son, Tejashwi Yadav, dispensing barbs at Kumar with agility and humour at large rallies where he addresses Kumar as "chacha".
A particularly wrong call was prohibition that Kumar imposed on Bihar in 2016, perhaps inspired by Gujarat. Kumar's calculation was that he would reap the harvest of women voters across the state to add to his Kurmi base. The reality is somewhat different. Prohibition has ensured a flourishing black market for liquor all across Bihar with police stations being supply points and Kumar is unable to crackdown on the liquor mafia. Kumar's image for good administration has taken a hard knock with many from his own party and cadre allegedly involved in the black market sale of booze.
The BJP has grown at Kumar's expense in Bihar. Kumar thought he was dealing with the tame BJP of L K Advani which had made a bit of a pet of Kumar, he now finds himself dealing with Shah, who is ruthless and a master politician. Unbelievably, he thought of doing yet another somersault and sent feelers to the opposition before his seat share with the BJP was finalized. The Congress was somewhat sympathetic but the Yadav family vetoed another go at the relationship.
For a man as thin-skinned and with as much acuity about his image, the near-caricaturing of his leadership must be galling. No wonder he looks so glum.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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