Opinion: Offering Up Nitish For PM - The Joke's On Us

In 2011, when India Against Corruption dealt the UPA a blow from which it never recovered, India was full of Chief Ministers with very public designs on 7, Race Course Road. This was a new phenomenon in our politics. While a handful of former Chief Ministers had become PM (Morarji Desai, VP Singh, Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda), the established path to head of government went through Parliament and the Centre. Deve Gowda and Chandra Shekhar, who served less than a year each as PM, were the only men (other than Nehru, of course) whose first seat in the Cabinet was at its head.

The aspirants of 2011 had a cautionary precedent to call upon: Ramakrishna Hegde. In the late 1980s, Hegde, egged on by Delhi journalists, attempted to use his early acclaim as Chief Minister of Karnataka as a platform for national office. The failure of this campaign meant a premature, if drawn-out, end to his career. Not only did Hegde not become Prime Minister, but he also had to watch in horror and bemusement as Deve Gowda made it instead. Regional leaders might have drawn from this the following lesson: you're more likely to become PM by staying out of the limelight than by visible aspiration.

Yet the kind of man or woman who has what it takes to rise to the top of an Indian state was never likely to draw that sort of lesson. Instead, they looked at India's post-1989 politics and saw that barring Atal Bihari Vajpayee, every Prime Minister was in some sense "accidental", and thought: why not me?

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee (File photo)

Two Chief Ministers stood out for their plausibility, for the fact that their names were as or more likely to be proffered by others than by the aspirant himself. One was Narendra Modi. He had long been the candidate of the Hindutva faithful, he was now also the candidate of Business. A decade ago, almost any conversation about India with a businessman would find its way to Modi being the only person who could achieve India's growth potential. Any mention of 2002 would be met with the exasperated tone that Business reserves for what it sees as woolly-headed liberalism. "How long are you people going to keep holding that over his head?"

The other was Nitish Kumar.

The similarities were obvious. Both seen as personally clean and "governance"-oriented (never mind how differently they might have understood that term). Neither encumbered by relatives in politics. Both re-elected (Modi in 2007 and 2012, Nitish in 2010) by overwhelming margins. Both, as it happens, born within a few months of each other in 1950-51. Both governing in partnership with a single trusted deputy. Both building an image of themselves as synonymous with their states. Both self-made, and from non-dominant Other Backward Castes (OBC) backgrounds. Both seeing the potential of women as a distinct voting bloc.

They represented the 21st-century paradigm of the all-powerful Chief Minister. What subsequently happened in Delhi was already underway in the states a decade ago - the centralisation of power and authority in a single charismatic individual, and the reducing of cabinets and legislatures to a set of anonymous rubber stamps.

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PM Modi and Nitish Kumar (File photo)

If Modi was the candidate of Business, Nitish's main non-Bihar constituency was the press. Where Modi regarded the Anglophone media with what could mildly be called suspicion, Nitish was happy to engage with journalists, some of whom became full-time Nitish cheerleaders. And, to be fair, it was easy to be seduced by the story he told of a Bihar finally on the up, and by a man who, while part of the NDA, plainly did not have a communal bone in his body. The achievements of his first term were real enough.

A decade ago, Modi and Nitish looked like rivals, and equals. Every year since has made a mockery of the comparison. In 2013, Nitish broke his stable and productive alliance with the BJP on the grounds that he could not countenance Modi's leadership. In 2014, contesting on its own, his JD(U) won less than 16% of the vote in Bihar. The following year ,he had to form a humiliating alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav, a "Maha-Gathbandhan" that repudiated everything he had spent the previous decade claiming to stand for.

Two years later, he was back with the BJP - so much for Modi's unacceptability - and by 2020, the JD(U) was down to 43 seats from the 115 of 2010. Nitish was Chief Minister again, but the message from the BJP was clear: we will tolerate you for five more years, and then you and your party will be history.

Forget principle - these are not the moves of a Chanakya. In 2013, Nitish fatally overestimated his strength; his three subsequent U-turns have all been marked more by desperation than shrewdness.

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Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav (File photo)

In 2011, nearly 6 out of 10 Biharis were under the age of 25. It remains one of India's youngest states. The majority of Biharis have spent the majority of their lives under Nitish's rule; next year, he will have been Chief Minister of Bihar longer than Nehru was Prime Minister of India. A decade ago, Nitish dreamed of taking his "Bihar Model" to the rest of India; instead, he stayed in Bihar and failed to build on the early promise of that model. Health and Education are particularly tragic areas of failure for a man who, unlike most of his peers - including Modi in Gujarat - had made them priorities. If in 2010 he looked like a potential Kamaraj, history may place him closer to Jyoti Basu: a Chief Minister whose long tenure achieved little more than stagnation.

And yet, here we are in 2022, and Delhi's journalists are back to talking up Modi and Nitish as Prime Ministerial rivals. It is worth thinking about what this says about us as a polity.

There are few more risible slogans than the notion of "no alternative" to Narendra Modi, in a country with 100 crore voters. If Nitish Kumar is the best we can do, we live in a time of low expectations, a time where two consecutive generations have declined to take up social and political leadership.

No state embodies this better than Bihar. Bihar's politics is still dominated by products of the JP Movement of half a century ago (Nitish, Lalu, Sushil Kumar Modi) and their sons (Tejashwi, Chirag Paswan). In a previous column, I pointed to the lost generation of Modi and Nitish's contemporaries who died before their time. But those deaths don't explain the absence of leaders from the generations that followed. India has exactly one Opposition leader of consequence who is under the age of 60 and did not inherit their position: Arvind Kejriwal.

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Arvind Kejriwal (File photo)

In the decades leading up to Independence, Indians of all backgrounds were drawn not only to the freedom movement but to a range of struggles for a better India. The JP Movement, and the broader anti-Emergency struggle that followed, drew in another generation. But since the 1980s, the energies of our young people have increasingly been confined to private pursuits - to getting ahead as individuals or families. Only the BJP and RSS have been able to continue to attract committed young people at scale.

It is against this backdrop that we must try to make sense of Nitish Kumar's re-emergence as a Prime Ministerial contender. Even our Opposition, thus far unable to coordinate over anything, might be able to agree on Nitish. What other choice do they have? Only the Aam Aadmi Party, India's most ambitious Opposition party and thus the one least trusted by the others, might fail to fall in line.

A decade ago, Modi and Nitish both represented a new model of charismatic, ambitious Chief Ministers. Now Nitish looks like a throwback to the world before Modi, like a creature of the "system" that prevailed from the death of Indira Gandhi to the rise of Narendra Modi. That system had many features - accommodation, compromise, social representation - that looked weak and corrupt to many before 2014. What ultimately defined it was pluralism: the idea that India would have multiple centres of power.

For all his limitations, for all that previous investments of hope in him have yielded dismal returns, for all that it says about our collective limitations: for those who look to the pre-2014 world with something like nostalgia, Nitish Kumar represents the difference between something and nothing.

(Keshava Guha is a writer of literary and political journalism, and the author of 'Accidental Magic'.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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