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).

Nitish had denied NK Singh re-nomination to the Rajya Sabha because he had failed to help the state get Special Status and bring in investments. Singh is known for his connections in the corporate world as well as in Delhi’s bureaucracy. So Nitish decided not to promote Singh. At the same time, Parveen Amanullah, the Welfare Minister and activist (wife of Nitish Kumar’s favorite officer Afzal Amanullah, now on central deputation) walked out of the state government while RK Singh, who recently retired as Central Home Secretary, declined the offer to be Nitish Kumar’s adviser and joined the BJP instead.

As no party has so far extended its hands to form an alliance with JD (U) in Bihar, the CPI has come forward. But everything is still in an amorphous state. Nitish is also taking a keen interest in the formation of an anti-Congress, anti-BJP Third Front of 14 regional parties to fight the growing threat of communalism and strengthen democratic forces.

Congress is all set to have an alliance with Lalu’s RJD – now with his diminished coterie of MLAs – to put up a strong challenge to JD (U) and BJP in Bihar. After Lalu’s conviction by a CBI court in the fodder scam, Rahul Gandhi had feebly defended the alliance, saying his party was not joining hands with a convicted individual but with an idea. In fact, Congress and Lalu have silently been working to forge an alliance despite RJD offering only three seats to Congress in 2009 elections. RJD and LJP had distributed seats among themselves in a ratio of 25 to 12.

While Lalu’s conviction had angered Yadavs, who constitute 11 percent of the population, a section of the Muslims (16 per cent population) still looks at Lalu as the secular leader who had arrested LK Advani and grounded his Ram Rath. On the other hand, Nitish Kumar had flagged off Advani’s Yatra from Bihar two years ago and remained in the NDA government as Railway Minister while there was communal carnage in Gujarat. Then, LJP’s Ramvilas Paswan had emerged as a strong secularist after he resigned from the NDA in the aftermath of the Gujarat riots.

Though at the moment Paswan is vacillating between Congress-RJD and JD [U], Bihar is all set to witness a fierce triangular contest for the first time. Till the advent of the Lalu era in 1990, it was always Congress vs Others in Bihar.

Notably, Yadavs have been a strong political intermediary caste and been the backbone of socialist movements. In 1990-91, at the height of the Mandal movement, the Yadavs forged a sociopolitical alliance with the Muslims in the Ganga belt under the leadership of Sharad Yadav [now JD U], Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav [Samajwadi Party] and it was then called the MY [Muslim-Yadav] factor. On the other hand, since 2005, the powerful upper caste Bhumihars aligned with OBC Kurmis [the caste of Nitish] to form the government that was sarcastically called “Bhuku” [Bhumihar-Kurmi] Sarkar. Muslims, frustrated first with Congress after the Bhagalpur riots and then with Lalu’s jungle raj, rallied around Nitish, despite his alliance with the BJP. Surveys had shown that over 60 per cent of Muslims had voted for Nitish. In 2004, 79 per cent Muslims had backed the RJD, which slumped to 30 per cent in 2009.

Now, Bhumihars are slanting towards the BJP while the Muslims remain divided. This makes the scenario interesting.

The Lok Sabha elections will turn out to be a socio-political triangular, a playoff between Nitish vs BJP vs Congress-RJD-LJP. But Bihar seems surely headed towards a battle royale in which both BJP and Congress-RJD will corner Nitish, who is only resting on his past laurels. But the past is always perfect, present is tense and future is uncertain. 

Box: Muslims: Divided and confused 

Sometimes, even a silly joke about a political leader becomes fatal for his image. This happened with Bihar’s Vikas Purush Nitish Kumar, whose secular credentials were never questioned, despite his 17-year-long alliance with the BJP, and stint as Railway Minister during the Gujarat carnage. The joke doing the round after his split with the BJP was “Nitish Kumar is now a Certified Secular Leader”, a reference to the PM and Home Minister’s praising of Nitish’s ending of the alliance. Nitish Kumar, as chief minister, had charmed the Muslim sections through his bold ideas and initiatives. He made the 1989-Bhagalpur riots as the focal point of his pro-minority programmes. Since the Muslims felt that Lalu Prasad, who came to power riding the anti-Congress wave after the Bhagalpur riots that killed 1,100 people, had failed to address their problems and openly favored the perpetrators of the crime — mostly his caste men. Thus, Muslims looked at Nitish Kumar as their messiah, voted massively for him and helped the JD [U]-BJP combine come to power.

On his part, Nitish didn’t disappoint them; he not only booked the main accused but also got the compensation issue reopened, pressured the Centre to grant it at par with the 1984 anti-Sikh riot victims. Besides, through a series of welfare measures and a pro-Muslim attitude, he brought the community closer to his heart. This, despite the fact that in JD [U] there was no credible Muslim face and most of them were found to be self-serving and believed in Ganesh-Parikarma.

This didn’t matter. According to a Centre for Study of Developing Society [CSDS] report, Muslim support to Lalu’s RJD crashed to 30 per cent in 2009, from 79 per cent in 2004. In terms of seats, Lalu had won 26 seats in 2004, which dipped to just four seats in 2009. Lalu’s loss was Nitish’s gain. But the fact remains that Nitish had experimented with new ideas and implemented them only in NDA’s first term [2005-2009].

But the promises soon dried up. His government could not even provide land for the AMU campus in Muslim-dominated Kisangani. This left the Muslims confused and mystified. This is also reflected in the Government’s Report Card 2013 [Development with Justice] as there were only routine matters mentioned in one page.

Now it’s a bureaucrat who is saving Nitish’s face. Principal Secretary, Home and Minority Affairs, Amir Subhani, known as a live-wire bureaucrat, came up with an idea that became path-breaking in the country: he created a separate Minority Welfare Directorate under the Home Department. Under the Directorate, Minority Welfare Officers for each of the 38 districts have been appointed.

But when Nitish Kumar realised that doubt persisted in the minds of the majority of the Muslims despite his belated break up with the BJP, he announced more sops that included: doubling of the pension of Bhagalpur riot-affected families from Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000. His government also increased the monthly remuneration of Talimi Markaz [religious school] teachers from Rs 3,500 to Rs 5,000.

Now, just when the nation was awaiting announcement of poll schedule, the government announced a Rs 600 crore scheme for Muslim adult education programme, the implementation of which is bound to be stuck up after poll announcement.

A nightmare awaits Nitish as the RJD-Congress combine is all set to launch a vigorous campaign to woo back Muslims into their fold.



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