He was once called ‘Paltu Kumar’ by RJD. In 2017, Lalu Prasad Yadav had said his teeth lies in his stomach. Both statements outline the core political behaviour of Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) president Nitish Kumar. When he took oath for the eighth time as the CM Thursday, he did live up to his ‘summersault trait’ of the past. His return to the family is a slap on the BJP’s face and a template for India, says RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav.
But the latest split with the BJP, an ally on and off for over 25 years, carries a message bigger than any other from the Bihar CM in the past decade. In a span of few hours, he sent the entire BJP out of the government in Bihar. It almost seems like an open challenge to Narendra Modi and his prospects in 2024, a bugle blow announcing that Nitish is the only constant in Bihar, someone who cannot be taken out of calculation when harbouring the dream of returning to the PM’s office. And that is why Nitish Kumar is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Nitish Kumar is no Devegowda, or Inder Kumar Gujral or even Chandra Sekhar who enjoyed power despite having fewer seats in the Lok Sabha. But he has achieved something similar in Bihar for nearly 17 years. Parties with more seats than JD(U) have no choice but to back Nitish. This is the power of this astute politician. And it’s the Sushann Babu image that makes his allies and opponents realise his price in Bihar’s political market. Now, in the absence of a viable alternative to Modi, his worth may be realised nationally.
His strong credentials vis a vis handling corruption and grip over Bihar’s 16 per cent voteshare comprising the extremely backward class (EBC) too is irresistible for players in the state and beyond.
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The national ambition
Upendra Kushwaha, member, JD(U) parliamentary board, says Nitish has all qualities that require him to become the PM. And that’s a template that interests the opposition too. A track record of good governance, secular credentials and clean image helps his case. And he is a Hindi-speaking politician from north India, unlike TRS’ Chandrasekhar Rao or even Mamata Banerjee who too have national ambition.
But KCR has only 17 seats. NCP’s Sharad Pawar is too old. And Congress is in double mind to lead the opposition battle against Modi. In the opposition camp, Kejriwal maintains safe distance from Mamata and others. Delhi CM’s silence on Nitish is also defining—suits his politics.
So, Nitish can be that unifying force.
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BJP and the error in judgement
Those who know Nitish from up close find the JD(U) leader an introvert. He never speaks his mind, and starts to withdraw if pushed beyond a threshold.
In February 2020, Nitish was in Delhi to attend Rohan Jaitley’s marriage—his old friend Arun Jaitley’s son. When an entourage of businessmen and Bollywood celebrities arrived, Nitish was quick to head out. He withdraws immediately, if he does not find the company suitable.
Various BJP leaders are levelling the charge against the Bihar CM that he had vice-presidential ambitions. Now he could have held a press conference and cleared the air. But he didn’t. That’s Nitish Kumar for his opponents. He will keep them guessing.
There are many reasons being cited for Nitish’s exit— from BJP’s recent morcha meet in Patna where the party announced to fight more than 200 seats alone in the next assembly election, to J.P. Nadda’s anti-regional party remark.
BJP was caught napping. It never thought Nitish would go the RJD way—a party unable to shed its corrupt, dynastic tag and that may come under the scanner of central agencies.
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Changing colour of Kumar
Nitish spent his initial days with Lalu, helping him become chief minister in 1990. But as soon as he sensed an overreaching influence of Lalu in Janata Dal, he parted ways to form Samta Party with George Fernandes. Samta Party did not take off smoothly and Nitish got only seven seats in the 1995 election. Later, when he realised that aligning with the BJP will give him leverage against Lalu, in 1996, he joined alliance with them, becoming a cabinet minister under Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Arun Sinha, Nitish’s colleague and biographer, writes in his book Nitish Kumar and Rise of Bihar that “in fact, he was with Lalu, who took on Karpoori Thakur in the inner-party battle in 1987 even though Nitish Kumar had a perfect relationship with Thakur. Nitish thought of categorisation of 22 most backward castes as Mahadalit came from Karpoori Thakur only”.
After Karpoori Thakur and Lalu, George Fernandes became the third victim of Nitish’s change of heart. In 2009, he denied the veteran leader Lok Sabha ticket from Muzaffarpur on the ground that he was ailing.
Nitish changed his heart again in 2010 when Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was visiting Patna and the BJP published an advertisement in local newspapers showing Nitish and Modi in the same frame. Protective about his secular credentials, Nitish led his first separation from BJP in 2013.
Change of heart again happened in 2013 when he made way for Jitan Ram Manjhi to make him the chief minister. But that didn’t last long and Nitish was back as the CM by early 2015.
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Will it work this time?
Former deputy chief minister says: “even RJD will not trust Nitish knowing his past track record, second Nitish with 17-20 Lok Sabha seats can’t become a challenger to Modi.”
However, Bengal, Maharashtra, Bihar can spoil BJP’s chance of a bigger mandate.
Modi, who knows Nitish from 1977 and has worked closely with him, says even he failed to understand the former’s mind.
Arun Sinha writes in the JD(U) leader’s biography that anti-Congress politics has its root in the party denying assembly seat to his (Nitish’s) father Ramlahan Singh in the 1950s. During his college days in Patna University, Nitish saw his father’s agony and humiliation that compelled him to join politics. And his association with anti-Congress forces started to grow.
Nitish’s entire politics was against Congress—be it college days or Emergency. But it is Congress which came to support Nitish last week.
Views are personal.