Talk Point: Is Nitish Kumar the smartest political opportunist in India?

File image of Nitish Kumar. Source: @NitishKumar

Nitish Kumar resigned as Bihar chief minister Wednesday after saying that his conscience no longer permitted him to remain in office. But the Janata Dal (United) chief’s resignation has undoubtedly done a fair bit of calculations before putting in his papers and may not even be out of power for too long. So this then begs the question: is the JD(U) chief the smartest political opportunist today?

Going with the BJP is consistent with his carefully constructed image at this point — Kumar Anshuman, Associate Editor, ThePrint

In northern India, most regional party leaders thrive on the support base of a particular caste group’s vote  – whether it is Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mayawati, Ram Vilas Paswan of Jiten Ram Manjhi. Nitish Kumar is the only leader who doesn’t have a significant, loyal caste vote. His caste, the Kurmis, are not a sizeable number in Bihar and its electoral influence is limited to districts such as Nalanda and Bihar Sharif. This is why, he always has to piggyback on parties like BJP and RJD to be in power. Probably that is why his good governance agenda works for him and makes him a leader who can influence voters from all the castes, and even create a new segment called Mahadalits.

More than a secular leader or a champion of any caste group, he preferred an image of a Vikas Purush.

However, things have changed since 2015, and the BJP has been on a roll in every possible way. Nitish’s image of being Sushashan Babu was also getting hit due to his association with with RJD. Not too long ago, his name was being discussed as a consensus opposition candidate to challenge Modi in 2019. But Nitish can foresee the trouble in the opposition camp.

Going with the BJP is consistent with his carefully constructed image at this point. He can still run the government for remaining term. But the opposition this time will be formidable. With RJD being the largest party (80 seats) backed by Congress (27 seats), Nitish will have lot to answer for going forward.

Lalu had once famously said about Ramvilas Paswan: “He is the biggest meteorologist, he knows where the wind is blowing.” Nitish is smarter than Paswan.

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Nitish does not accumulate wealth, he accumulates social and political capital –Shaibal Gupta, member secretary, Asian Development Research Institute

Nitish Kumar had no option other option but to take this position.  In many senses, he is a probity-driven Chief Minister, he cannot tolerate corruption. He just could not continue with this dispensation. If he had, it would have been no different from the UPA-II when it stubbornly and desperately stuck to power and faced electoral defeat.

Now he will be able to build his profile and brand in a decisive manner. He has done this before too. After 2014, he resigned and made Jiten Ram Manjhi chief minister. Earlier, he had quit as railway minister after an accident. This is not a standalone incident. Whenever he cant go forward in an untenable situation, he prefers to walk away. He doesn’t like to stick to a position of power by hook or crook.

Ideologically, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar are similar. They are products of the same social churning and JP movement, and the post-Green Revolution politics in Bihar. They have both benefited from Mandal as a political instrument. But culturally they are very different. Nitish does not accumulate wealth, but prefers to accumulate social and political capital on the basis of performance.

Nitish can take the moral high ground, which will catapult him as an alternative to Modi nationally on the basis of his sacrifice. Or Lalu may capitulate because he knows that he can’t live without the trappings of power. Or there may be cross-party support for Nitish to continue his rule. Lalu and the Congress may support him from outside. Or members may break away from their parent parties to join Nitish.

Whatever happens, Nitish is very smart and is back on the national centre-stage.

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Nitish is hoping to leverage his own political and moral capital – Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief, ThePrint

Nitish Kumar is the main focus of all political discussion today, as indeed for this edition of #TalkPoint. His situation, or if I may prefer to call it his plight, speaks for one of the most powerful and unfortunate contradictions of Indian democracy.

Those who are trusted for their ability to govern non-controversially, while being fair indeed and personally honest, do not have vote banks. Those who have the votes, by and large, have dodgy reputations and track records or large caste loyalties, or as the Lalu Yadav family exemplifies, both. Or, they don’t know how to govern. Our voters rarely get a leader who is a vote-catcher and a fine ruler. I know, Narendra Modi’s supporters will protest, but we need to pick up the thread on that on another day.

Check out the political map of India. Vote banks are usually held by the most controversial leaders, mostly dynasts facing multiple cases of corruption and worse. Even in a state like Haryana, where BJP won a majority and installed a clean leader, a majority of the vote banks are still shared among the three old political dynasties. Each, if I may cautiously add, with a better track record of governance than the current incumbent. So where you get a clean image, you either get poor governance or you do not have vote banks, making you survive on someone else’s sufferance.

Nitish’ problem today was also Manmohan Singh’s for 10 years of UPA. He had a clean image, ability to govern and good ideas. But he could not get enough votes even to get himself elected. His decade was therefore marred by that fantasy contradiction of accountability for governance sitting in one place and political power in another.

There aren’t many exceptions. Naveen Patnaik is clean, but runs what is at best a laid-back B+ quality government. Mamata has the votes and popular connect but see the mess her state is in. Vasundhara Raje won her election on her own strength, but Rajasthan is now widely seen as a poorly-run state. In Uttar Pradesh, you can go right back to when V.P. Singh rose as chief minister and later as prime minister riding the anti-Bofors campaign. He could never build a vote bank, and ran India’s most incompetent government in his short tenure.

Nitish is rebelling against this, hoping to leverage his own political and moral capital to achieve a desired conclusion. Will Lalu and his family give in?

When Kanshi Ram launched Bahujan Samaj Party, he coined a catch slogan: vote hamara, raj tumhara/nahin chalega, nahin chalega. That’s just the riot act Lalu read to Nitish, and he has responded with his resignation.

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Can Nitish emerge as a leader who can break caste loyalties like Arvind Kejriwal? — Sanjay Kumar, Director at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

In politics, sometimes you think that you have built a larger-than-life image of yourself and you get trapped in that notion. At times, you have to live up to your own expectations. The step taken by Nitish Kumar clearly vindicates the above line. More than anything else, what you do in politics depends on the electoral gains attached to it. It is there Nitish has failed to judge it right. It’s not a win-win situation for Nitish. Rather he is a loser in today’s scenario.

First, he would be called an opportunist if he decides to take support of the BJP. No doubt his stature nationwide would grow by few inches as he has sacrificed the government for the sake of his moral values. But is it sufficient in electoral politics? I don’t see any electoral gain for him.

The political equation in Bihar depends on caste equations and Nitish is weaker than he was earlier. Yadavs, obviously, will not vote for him. Muslims and Dalits would be a divided house. The upper caste sees him as an enemy who can tilt whichever way for his vested interests, even if he goes with the BJP.

His own party had done miserably in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and he had got the message loud and clear.

In this scenario, he would attempt to emerge as a leader who can break caste loyalties and is beyond sectional politics, like Arvind Kejriwal. But that looks far-fetched idea as of now.

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Nitish’s politics has been built around the image of a leader who has no vices – Pranab Dhal Samanta, Editor, ThePrint

The voice of conscience is not new to Nitish Kumar – he has often resorted to that line in trying political situations, almost in a rush at times to ensure that he never ever loses the moral argument. In many ways, his politics has been built around the image of a leader, who not only has no vices but does everything possible to stay away from them.

So, in 2014, this vice in his books was best symbolised in Narendra Modi’s communal caricature. Secularism, thus was the moral space he sought to occupy but when his party did poorly and won only two Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, what did Nitish do? He resigned.

From nowhere Jitan Ram Manjhi climbed the heights of Bihar’s competitive politics, became chief minister and decided to keep it that way regardless of Nitish’s interests. Manjhi’s conversations with BJP was enough to bring Nitish back to reality, bury the hatchet with Lalu Prasad, form the Mahagathbandhan with RJD and the Congress to deliver secularism its big victory in the rampaging Modi era.

But again, working with the RJD’s Yadav parivaar, which had won more seats than Janata Dal (U), was never going to be easy. And back came BJP’s campaign slogan of corruption against Lalu and his family, giving Nitish his all-too-familiar moral dilemma. He wanted Tejashwi to resign, Lalu said no, so again, Nitish resigned.

Even Prime Minister Modi zealously guards his clean image of na khaoonga, na khaane doonga  but deals with the dirt around him quite differently. Despite a loud opposition chorus demanding resignations from BJP leaders through the Lalit Modi saga, Vyapam scam and even the Purti case in his initial months in office, he did not give in, knowing well that he can’t afford cracks in his party. But when Nitish resigned Wednesday, the giant crack in the grand alliance was surely worth celebrating.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Shri Nitish Kumar is roughly where he was in 2013, perhaps so is the state unit of the BJP, but at the national level he faces a confident, surging political / electoral machine. With no return to the national stage possible, he will struggle to maintain his primacy in Bihar beyond 2019.

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