As 2019 comes to a close, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has emerged as one of the biggest disappointments in Indian politics. Kumar, once known to be a new-age, progressive and focused politician, has now slipped into a vapid version of himself — rudderless, friendless, fickle and, devoid of ideology as well as coherence in politics.
With assembly election due in the state next year, Nitish Kumar will be among the most keenly watched political figures of 2020.
The Citizenship Amendment Act and how it played out for Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) once again underscores his slipping grip as well as irrelevance in India’s rapidly changing political landscape.
JD(U), which is in power in Bihar in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), supported the illiberal legislation in Parliament but not without a fair share of controversy with some of its leaders openly slamming the move, and others doing so more covertly.
The Bihar chief minister may have been in an on-and-off relationship with the BJP, but he has still tried to maintain a secular front and even relied on Muslims as a crucial vote base. With his support to the bill, there emerged a big question mark on what Nitish Kumar’s political inclination is, what his ideological leaning is and whether he has completely surrendered himself to Narendra Modi, thus, acknowledging his relegation to the periphery of politics.
Just as one seemed unsure of his altered priorities, Nitish did a ‘Nitish’ yet again by announcing that he will not allow the National Register of Citizens (NRC) to be implemented in his state — possibly to calm tempers of his deeply irked party leaders and Muslim voters.
The love-hate relationship
From frequently changing his friends and enemies to dithering on his own basic ideology — Nitish Kumar has emerged as the king of flip flops in Indian politics.
Consider this. When Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, Kumar as the Bihar CM had barred him from entering the state due to his alleged role in the 2002 Godhra riots. He went on to snap ties with the BJP in 2013 after Narendra Modi became its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Never mind that he had joined hands with the BJP way back in 1996 — when the party’s overtly Hindutva, communal stance and politics had already become more than clear.
Kumar returned to the NDA fold in 2017 — just a couple of years after splitting with Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad, an old socialist friend and who, for all his other flaws, is one leader who has always remained staunchly secular. Nitish, in fact, had even briefly served as a union minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government.
In 2015, ahead of the Bihar assembly election when the ‘threat’ of Narendra Modi loomed large, Nitish Kumar patched up with friend-turned-foe Lalu Yadav to fight the polls in alliance with the RJD and the Congress. This followed the phase from 2013 onward that saw Kumar take on Modi aggressively.
The mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) won handsomely in the 2015 polls and Nitish Kumar became the chief minister once again, although with a perceivably reduced stature.
This love affair, however, was also short-lived, something of a Nitish hallmark. By mid-2017, the Bihar CM forgot his hatred for Modi and love blossomed with Kumar returning to the BJP camp.
With such frequent camp shifting, particularly between arch rivals, Nitish Kumar makes Haryana’s old ‘aaya Ram, gaya Ram’ jibe seem like a mere euphemism. What has happened, as a result, is that nobody quite trusts him, least of all current ‘friend’ Narendra Modi.
It isn’t just friends and foes that Nitish Kumar keeps changing. It is also his approach to issues and ideologies. He wants to be secular, and yet, befriends an overtly Hindutva party.
He wants the Muslim vote, he even reopened the 1989 Bhagalpur communal riot case in 2006, but still supported the very questionable Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in Parliament. In fact, his position on not opposing the amended citizenship law is what has brought Nitish’s oscillating, unsteady politics and ideology to the fore once again.
Nitish Kumar backing the bill caused internal backlash against him in the JD(U), with his handpicked people like Prashant Kishor and Pavan Varma openly criticising him.
Nitish’s subsequent rejection of the NRC would be noble, except that it leads to an obvious question — why support a legislation as discriminatory and majoritarian in approach as the Citizenship Amendment Act in the first place? Why support CAA when the BJP has always hyphenated it with the NRC and unequivocally said it is a precursor to it?
Dent in image
It was in 2005 that Nitish Kumar first became chief minister of Bihar. He rose to power with a promise that he would make the dark ages Bihar had seen a thing of the past. He was perceived as a stable, progressive and secular face.
His first term was defined by what came to be known as his style of ‘good governance’, a perceptible change in the state, infrastructure growth and most importantly, a more enabling climate for women.
In the run-up to the 2010 state assembly election, the image of young girls cycling to school in a state that had spent decades being identified as unsafe and regressive stood out. Nitish became the darling of liberals, a regional leader who stood for all the right things and had much potential to break into the national scene. He swept back to power in the 2010 assembly polls, which also came to be remembered as fair and non-violent election that Bihar had not been used to.
Between 2010 and 2015, however, much had changed. Those five years marked a significant decline in Nitish Kumar’s political trajectory as well as public image. But what happened after the 2015 assembly election has been even more damning for the once-promising leader. In fact, his 2016 ban on alcohol in Bihar was criticised by many who once associated Nitish Kumar with adjectives like ‘liberal’ and ‘pragmatic’. His government had to subsequently dilute some of the penalties of the Prohibition Bill in 2018.
Nitish Kumar’s electoral base — comprising the ‘extremely backward castes’, Maha Dalits and women — is what will be critical for him in the near future and perhaps what remains his only redeeming factor.
The brazen desire to remain in power by willingly compromising friendships and principles, along with completely confounded politics and direction, means Nitish Kumar is now a pale shadow of his old self. He is no longer the great face of development he once tried to project. There is nothing that defines Kumar’s politics or persona today, except his unabashed opportunism and U-turns.
An unintended consequence of the CAA-NRC mess has been the renewed attention to what has now come to define Nitish Kumar’s brand of politics, fittingly described by this Hindi film song: idhar chala, main udhar chala; jaane kaha main kidhar chala… (I’m going here and there, not sure where I am headed).