Nitish Kumar may have won the trust vote in the Bihar legislature, but he is now weaker than what he was during his earlier stint as the Chief Minister. At that time, he had become a larger than life figure because of his success in controlling lawlessness in the state and preparing the ground for development. As a result, he was even seen as a possible player on the national stage.
But that aura is gone. The reason is his journey from the “communal” to the “secular” camp and back. Had he moved in only one direction, he would have appeared more straightforward than at present. But trips back and forth tend to undermine a politician’s credibility. He is seen then as an opportunist on the lookout for the best chance.
If he had wanted to retain his trustworthiness in the wake of the corruption charges against Lalu Prasad and his family, he should have called for fresh elections. That would have been a message to Lalu Prasad as well, for it would have shown him — as well as other politicians — that sleaze doesn’t pay. As it is, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief is barred from contesting elections because of his conviction in the fodder scam.
But switching sides within two years of securing a mandate has put Nitish Kumar in the lowly category of the Congress MLAs in Gujarat who have been lured away to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by the indefatigable Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo.
Nitish Kumar’s latest manoeuvre may well turn out to be his third political mistake. The first was in 2013 when he hurriedly quit the BJP because he feared that Modi’s rise will erode his Muslim support base. As long as Modi did not venture out of Gujarat, Nitish Kumar was happy in the BJP in the company of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. But Modi’s entry into the big league unnerved him.
So he ran from the rock of a changing BJP to the hard place of his old friend of the days of the JP movement, Lalu Prasad. This was Nitish Kumar’s second mistake, for he ignored the possibility that the hero/villain of the RJD’s “jungle raj” in Bihar may ultimately be his nemesis.
And so it has proved to be. But the way out for Nitish Kumar was not to retrace his steps, for he has gone back to the same person from whom he ran away four years ago. If the Bihar Chief Minister was afraid in 2013 that Modi would scare away the Muslims, he should harbour the same fear now when the rampaging gau rakshaks have become a frightening menace for the minorities.
True, Modi of 2017 is not the Modi of 2002, when he was called a “modern day Nero” by the Supreme Court, because he has been speaking out against the cow vigilantes. Modi has also succeeded in putting an end to the ghar wapsi and love jehad campaigns. But how far the BJP has changed with its veneration for the holy cow and its belief in the therapeutic value of cow’s urine is open to question.
Nitish Kumar is teaming up, therefore, with a party whose pursuit of Hindutva and ultra-nationalism is far more aggressive at present than in the time of Vajpayee and Advani.
Politically, too, the BJP believes that the future belongs to it mainly because of its spectacular success in UP. Now, Nitish Kumar’s floor-crossing will convince the BJP that the Hindi heartland is firmly in its grip. It is unlikely, therefore, that it will allow Nitish Kumar to call the shots as before. Instead, the Modi dispensation may placate him with a special financial package for Bihar.
What the latest events have shown is that Nitish Kumar’s destiny is to be a provincial politician, remaining confined like his friend-cum-foe-cum-friend-cum-foe again, Lalu Prasad, in Bihar. Any hope that he may have had of playing a larger role, which was possible if he had stayed with the opposition, is unlikely to be fulfilled.
Bihar itself may gain because of the centre’s largesse and Nitish Kumar’s administrative capabilities. But the future of his party — the Janata Dal-United — is uncertain because its Muslim and Yadav components may drift away. The fading out of the party will make Nitish Kumar even more beholden to the BJP.
The RJD, on the other hand, is likely to grow and fill the empty opposition space in Bihar in the absence of the Janata Dal-United and the Congress.
Nitish Kumar’s well-wishers will hope that with his amiable personality, he will exert a moderating influence on the BJP and be on Modi’s side in reining in the hardliners and turning the focus resolutely on development. That is the only way he can redeem himself.