Wednesday, 10 August, 2022
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The chief in chief minister

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has attracted the many backward castes, while embracing the BJP and its upper caste voters, and yet comforting the Muslims, and in the process devastating Lalu Prasad.

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Is Nitish nuts, a genius, or too clever by half? The answer is, none of the above. He is, simply, a hundred per cent post-Mandal, heartland politician. He knows his equations of caste, vote banks and ideologies. He is also a risk-taker, and reads the political winds better than most others. Among all the former Lohiaites who emerged from Mandal’s creative destruction of the heartland’s old vote banks, he was the only one who embraced the BJP. The other two, Lalu and Mulayam, placed themselves squarely against it, as leaders of the hard secular side, knowing that a minimalistic approach of getting the Muslims together with the Yadavs would be good enough to keep them in business in a fragmented politics. Nitish was crowded out of the same space by Lalu. But he had the political audacity, and foresight, to go the other way, thereby becoming the first secular Lohiaite (with George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav as his partners) to do so.

His most remarkable success lies in the way he has attracted the many backward castes, while embracing the BJP and its upper caste voters, and yet comforting the Muslims, and in the process devastating Lalu Prasad. One of the most significant findings of our travels through elections in Bihar, particularly in 2010, was how he had got Bihar’s Muslims to admire him, even call him sher ka bachcha (the description became the headline for that instalment of my Writings on the Wall, ‘When lonely Lalu misses gentleman Sonia and a Muslim calls Nitish sher ka bachcha’) from the campaign. He achieved that while being in the BJP’s tight embrace for two reasons: one, he had given Bihar a genuinely secular and peaceful five years. And two, he had kept Narendra Modi out of the campaign.

This finessing of alliance politics between the BJP and Modi was both brilliant and unsustainable. Last week, he retreated from this not only in time, and in an orderly manner, but also looking like a winner, at least for now. In the process, he turned Bihar’s politics upside down. If the Congress joins him, it will be the end of Lalu. After almost three decades, therefore, the state will have a genuinely bipolar politics, with the BJP on one side, and the Congress on the other, even if as a very junior partner.

Also read: Broken politics, constant combatants

You can disagree with everything Nitish says, but he has raised some interesting points to justify his move. The first is, that an alliance today has to be inclusive and led by softer, big-hearted leadership. The second, that there can be more than one model of good governance and development, and that you cannot blindly apply what works in one state to another. And third, that his responsibility and interests lie first and foremost within his own state. He is not so stupid as to think he is positioning himself as a most likely prime ministerial candidate of a third, fourth or fifth front. He is only highlighting the phenomenon of the rise of the chief minister. But he is also saying that there can be many models of successful chief ministership and governance. His model, if anything, is the exact opposite of Modi’s, so how could he be in alliance with a party now led by him?

This phenomenon, the rise of the chief minister, has now matured to such an extent that you have two different categories of successful chief ministers. One, the softer, touchy-feely, politically correct, cautious even indecisive humble and personally honest populist. Nitish, Mamata, Naveen Patnaik, Manik Sarkar and even Shivraj Singh Chouhan will fall in this category. The other, aggressive, tough, hard-talking, decisive, take-no-prisoners risk-taker. Modi leads this category. Sukhbir Badal, and at a stretch Raman Singh and Jayalalithaa, will be the other three. Both categories have ushered in high growth rates. Both have kept the peace (ok, post-2002 for Gujarat). Both have enjoyed repeated electoral success. Of course, there are other things in common between them. All of them are dictators within their states and their parties. And I know it sounds cruel to the BJP but it is true that all of them are, or have been, part of the NDA. In fact, Nitish, Naveen and Mamata were all ministers in the Vajpayee cabinet.

So one political translation of what Nitish is saying is, ok, so you elevate Modi because he is a very successful chief minister, but so am I, and so are many others. And none of us needs to borrow the face-mask of any of the others.

Also read: Hamara desh badal gaya hai

With Nitish there, you can be pretty sure that elections will only take place on schedule now. You also know by now that the next election will be won or lost by the chief ministers. The new thing you can now say is that it will be a contest between these two different models of chief ministership.

Where does that leave the Congress party? None of its chief ministers features in either of our two lists. Sheila Dikshit may have featured in the softer group, but she is still reeling under the impact of CWG, Anna and the December 16 rape-and-murder agitations, and then Delhi is only half a state, with the chief minister not having a say in land or law and order, the two pillars of governance and political power in India. YSR would have definitely belonged in the other group, even ahead of Modi, but he is not there anymore. So what is the Congress left with? A Tarun Gogoi, who could also have figured in the softer category list, is being weakened by his own even in his third term. An Oommen Chandy who doesn’t know whether he is coming or going. And a Prithviraj Chavan, who leads the second-largest state in the country (in terms of members in the Lok Sabha), but is taken so much for granted that he has to beg for months even to get an audience with the environment minister and is then dismissed out of hand, to return to ridicule in his state. And mind you, we haven’t even mentioned Ashok Gehlot as yet. Because he doesn’t even count for enough to deserve a mention in dispatches. So the Congress, indeed, has chief ministers who fall in neither of these two categories. You can call theirs a model of their own, where a chief minister doesn’t really count for anything except as a party supplicant. That is why the party is reduced to approaching the 2014 campaign with minimalistic targets: anything upwards of 135, and then somehow denying the NDA a return to power.

Nitish’s move has opened a small window for them. But more importantly, it has opened up national politics, and redefined it as nothing has since Mandir and Mandal, as a contest between these two systems of governance. We have fretted about a new big idea not having surfaced in our politics in a long time (‘Still Mandal, still Mandir’, National Interest, IE, March 2, Modi and Nitish may just have produced one now. For some reflections on the Modi versus Nitish models of governance, read Writings on the Wall from Bihar, 2010 (, /gxeM1) and the Gujarat 2012 campaign (,

Also read: No cabinet meetings, no expansion — why Bihar’s brand new Nitish govt is yet to get going


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