ELECTION 2014: NITISH STRUGGLES FOR SURVIVAL

Tricked by the Congress and accused of betrayal by the BJP, Nitish Kumar is struggling to find new political idioms and new allies

Farzand Ahmed Patna 

Like a scene straight out of Macbeth, Nitish Kumar’s last Sankalp rally on the outskirts of Patna was clouded over by thunder, lightning and rain at noon. The rally, held on February 16, had drawn people from the interiors of Patna and Kumar’s native district Nalanda, who were shivering in the bone-chilling cold.

Is the setting of the rally symbolic of the days ahead? Nitish Kumar thundered: “If the strength of JD [U] gets reduced in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls, the BJP at the centre will not allow [our] government to last…We are not fighting for power. We are fighting for Bihar’s special status.”

By all indications and by his body language, Nitish Kumar, once credited with taking the GSDP (Gross State Domestic Product) from near zero level to the highest in the country, laying the network of highways, freeing the people from the fear of criminals, cracking down against corruption and initiating innovative style of governance, looked unsettled and disturbed.

Observers say he alone is to blame for this. All his achievements were recorded during the first five years of NDA (JD (U)-BJP) rule when he established himself as a Vikas Purush. Overnight, he dumped his most trusted ally BJP on the grounds that the BJP was nominating Narendra Modi as the party’s Prime Ministerial candidate and, like (Christopher Marlow’s) Dr Faustus, sold his socialist soul to Congress in exchange for Special Category Status to Bihar. He is now left with no friends, no allies. Instead, under Modi’s blitzkrieg, he finds the ground under his feet slipping fast.

The Congress leadership, from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to P Chidambaram, had promised to revisit the criteria for special status for backward states. Taking Chidambaram’s words further, the Centre set up an expert committee headed by then PM’s economic adviser Raghuram Rajan (now RBI Governor) to evolve a composite index for the backwardness of states. The committee included Nitish Kumar’s economic adviser Shaibal Gupta of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute. Yet, the promised Special Status remained elusive. Clearly, Nitish was tricked by the Centre, which had indicated that Bihar might get the Special Category Status on the basis of the recommendation of the committee. The committee instead recommended that the Special Status be abolished and the states be divided into three categories – least developed, less developed and developed for the purpose of central grants. Bihar occupied the second position, after Odisha, among the poorest or least developed states, despite its phenomenal GSDP growth rate.

However, recently, UPA had made Seemandhra a Special Category state and announced a package after the creation of Telengana. Citing this as an example of injustice to Bihar, Nitish re-launched his Special Status campaign for Bihar. The BJP too made it an issue and separately launched a campaign against the Congress and started promising that Bihar would get Special Status once Modi becomes Prime Minister.

In fact, the Raghuram Rajan Committee report and the attitude of the Congress had angered Nitish. He felt that after breaking relations with the BJP and being let down by the Centre in a cold-blooded manner he was left neither here nor there.

Which is what led Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad to openly mock Nitish Kumar’s plight, saying neither Modi nor Nitish were a factor in this election in Bihar. All of this probably signals the beginning of the end of Bihar’s first-ever development-oriented rule. RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddiqui says the fight between Nitish and BJP is a noora kushti (fancy wrestling match) to influence Muslim voters and win new friends. 

On the other hand, the BJP has made Nitish’s ‘betrayal’ a national issue. Coupled with this, pollsters have been predicting that JD [U] under Nitish Kumar in Bihar would win Lok Sabha seats in single digits against the party’s tally of 20 out of 40 seats in 2009. This has made Nitish feel helpless and restless – he first dismissed these predictions but, as opinion polls started coming at regular intervals, he threatened to sue the media.

The BJP has issued a 50-page booklet on Nitish Kumar’s failure post the break-up of the two. The booklet not only lists his failures but also highlights the fact that while one section of the all powerful bureaucracy on which Nitish heavily depended has gone berserk, another section was g
etting frustrated.

At the same time, some ministers have been the cause of embarrassment for Nitish Kumar due to their outspokenness. People of the state are convinced that Nitish, in his second term as chief minister, lost control over the bureaucracy.   

On the other hand, NK Singh, an influential retired bureaucrat who has been an adviser to Nitish since the beginning of the NDA rule, told the Rajya Sabha in his farewell speech that Bihar has made remarkable achievements in all fields. However this was not, according to him, because of any individual (Nitish) but the NDA (JD (U) and BJP combine).

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2014