What Nitish Kumar Has Put At Risk With Re-Choosing The BJP

Published: July 27, 2017 10:34 IST
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Winston Churchill had this witty observation:  "A politician needs the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."

Nitish Kumar could have done nothing better in his life than be a politician - he has maneuvered his career graph with great deftness and a flair for political calculation. I have personally found Nitish Kumar to be one of the most fascinating Indian politicians. The boy from the Jayprakash Narayan movement who was comrade-in-arms with his former and once again bete noire Lalu Prasad Yadav has all the trappings of a great Indian backroom politician whose ultimate dream, like that of his friends LK Advani and Sharad Pawar, has been to occupy 7 Race Course Road (the PM's residence).

If not a mainstream politician, Nitish could well have been a great political strategist and advisor, just the way he started his career by helping Lalu achieve his maiden electoral victory in Bihar. Nitish walked Lalu, the mass leader, through electoral calculations to his friend's famed ascent in Bihar politics in 1990 when the Janata Dal swept the state polls and Lalu Yadav became Chief Minister for the first time. While Lalu was the mass leader who would make deliberate gaffes in public which endeared him to the Bihar ki janta, Nitish was the backroom man with the gift of perfect timing. Just like joining hands with George Fernandes in resigning from the Janata Dal and forming the Samta Party in 1994 and enduring a tough fight to finally fulfil his dream of becoming the Bihar Chief Minister in 2005. In an earlier role, he was the junior Minister for Railways in the NDA government and had his first political encounter with Narendra Modi who was the Chief Minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots. Unlike his friends, Nitish was never a man in a hurry, his words, his moves, his press conferences, his interviews, all calculated months in advance.

Last evening, when news of Nitish resigning from the Maha-Gathbandhan broke at 7 pm, reactions varied from shock to admiration and some outrage at his opportunism. For here was the man who left the NDA in 2013 when the BJP announced Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate. Here was the man who shot a scathing reply to Modi's "Jungle Raj" jibe in Bihar by asking Modi if Gujarat was a "Mangal Raj" in 2002. Here was the man who in 2012 told the country that Modi did not observe Raj-dharma in Gujarat. Here was the man who refused Modi's help during the Kosi floods in 2010 when the latter was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Here was the man who tweeted Modi in 2015, accusing him of playing communal politics and ignoring the lynching of Akhlaq in Dadri in a speech. Many like me have admired Nitish Kumar's tough stand on issues in the past, and the Bihar Chief Minister, if not for the trappings of his ambitions, could well have lived up to the expectations of many.

If not for Modi and Lalu, Nitish would perhaps be much less of an opportunist than what we see today. The man whose conscience, whose inner voice does ignite in him the desire to do the right thing, but is trumped by his insecurity over the two leaders who have not just strapped him of power in the centre but also in his own home state in Bihar.

Nitish and his attempt to convince various leaders of the opposition to name him as the face of the opposition for 2019 has not been a secret. His discomfort in ceding  ground to the RJD in Bihar despite being the Chief Minister is no conspiracy theory either. The discomfort began as early as the first month of government formation in 2015 and BJP President Amit Shah gauged it before anyone else could.

Nitish Kumar announcing his resignation, Modi congratulating him withing minutes, the BJP offering support within an hour, and the new government forming barely 12 hours later with the BJP is not something Nitish decided on overnight. It was a decision in the making for the last eight months which entailed him  supporting  the BJP on demonetisation, the election of President Kovind and more.  Through all this, he was buying time to convince other parties and the Congress to name him as the opposition's Prime Ministerial candidate for 2019.

But when the latter failed to work, Nitish did what he is known to do best: pick the best possible option, align with the BJP in Bihar on a corruption issue which is far less serious in nature than what he signed up for when he allied with a corruption-tainted Lalu Yadav in 2015. For those who believe that Nitish has given up his Prime Ministerial ambition, there is a possible volte face and similar secular barbs at Modi lined up in the future. But it is here that Nitish has in his audacity overlooked the imminent crushing at the hands of the Amit Shah- Modi combo in Bihar.

Perhaps if Nitish had sought an opinion from the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, he would have known that this is the BJP's master tactic in not just eroding his popularity in Bihar but also at any national level. The only other opposition leader who came close to being a face of the opposition amongst regional leaders was Mamata Banerjee, who has been neutralized not just with the BJP's increasing popularity in West Bengal, but also the Saradha and Narada scams. In Maharashtra, the BJP has stymied the Shiv Sena and the MNS to a junior role with the increasing possibility of an absolute majority in the 2019 state election.

For a politician as astute as Nitish Kumar, a better decision would have been the sacking of Tejashwi Yadav from the cabinet which would have allowed him the upper hand, rather than aligning with a heavyweight like the BJP which will seek to stunt his growth once. Nitish has been an excellent manipulator of political situations and of his inner voice for over a decade, but if only he had given attention to the systematic decimation of regional parties by the BJP, he could well have had his cake and eaten it too. Indian politics is unpredictable and perhaps Nitish could turn out to be smarter than political pundits and journalists like us. But better sense tells us that Nitish may have scored a point for now, but has also just marked the beginning of the end of his career as a heavyweight in regional politics.  

(Rana Ayyub is an award-winning investigative journalist and political writer. She is the author of 'Gujarat Files', a book on the politics of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in Gujarat.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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