The Bihar strongman will be remembered for his sheer opportunism than moral politics.
Nitish Kumar is a successful politician. He has served in several key positions in both the Centre and in Bihar for almost two decades. He has worked with different allies, from Bharatiya Janata Party to its archrival in the cowbelt, Rashtriya Janata Dal, resigned from crucial positions only to return more powerful and suffered setbacks but survived storms. But Nitish Kumar is also an opportunist, who has changed narratives several times in the past to gel them with his changing positions. When he was with the NDA, he was a proponent of ‘development’. He served the AB Vajpayee government as Agriculture Minister and Railway Minister. Nitish never threatened to rock the NDA boat when hundreds of Muslims were killed in the 2002 riots in the Narendra Modi-ruled Gujarat. This is primarily because he found the BJP as a useful ally to capture power from the formidable Lalu Yadav in Bihar. Even when he was the Union minister, Nitish’s ultimate goal was to unseat Lalu. He could do it with the BJP help in 2005 when the alliance gathered 143 seats out of 243. In 2010, the JDU-BJP alliance repeated the victory with 206 seats, each time the BJP raising both its vote share and the seat share.
But Nitish’s narrative will change from development to secularism in 2013 after the BJP started promoting Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Nitish suddenly started questioning the BJP’s secular credentials, reminding the voters of the Gujarat riots. He would even cancel a dinner for the BJP leaders after the saffron party in Bihar carried advertisements showing Modi and Nitish standing together, holding each other’s hands. In June 2013, the JDU formally ended its 17-year-long alliance with the BJP. Announcing the decision, Nitish then said: “We cannot compromise with our basic principles. We are not worried about the consequences. As long as the alliance was Bihar-centric, there was no problem. But we had no alternative now. We are not responsible. We were forced to take this decision.”
Why did Nitish do it? There are different theories. Nitish tried to sell the rise of Modi within the BJP as a threat to secularism and he was opposing it. That position was hard to believe because the BJP sans Modi is not a secular party and the same Nitish supported the BJP at the centre when Gujarat went through its most violent days in recent history. Another theory is that Nitish considered himself as a PM material. He would stand a chance if the BJP did not project any PM candidate and if the NDA falls short of expectations and forced to turn towards a compromise candidate. With Modi’s rise, those chances were destroyed. Ego may also have played a role. Till Modi turned to the national stages, he and Nitish were two chief ministers. Suddenly when Modi rose to the national stage, Nitish might have found it difficult to digest. He also would have wanted to test his popularity in the 2014 general elections without the BJP.
But the BJP swept the Lok Sabha elections. The NDA alliance won 28 seats out of 40, while Nitish’s JDU got only two. He quit as the chief minister, owning up the moral responsibility for the defeat. But the wounded politician within him won’t rest. The next big battle was the 2015 assembly elections. Nitish beefed up his secular narrative. But his eye was on simple arithmetic. The JDU, despite its poor show in the Lok Sabha polls, had won almost 16% votes. Lalu Yadav’s RJD, which won four seats, got 20% vote, compared to the BJP’s 29% and 22 seats. So there was a strong chance for the JDU and RJD to beat the BJP in the state if they come together. When Lalu suggested a grand alliance against the BJP, Nitish grabbed it. He denounced the BJP, and termed the alliance as the beginning of a new fight against communalism. It worked. In the 2015 election, the RJD emerged as the single largest party and JDU the second largest. They formed the coalition government, which ceased to exist on July 26 when Nitish quit, again.
This time, the controversy is around Tejaswi Yadav, Lalu Yadav’s son who was Deputy Chief Minister in Nitish’s cabinet. Earlier this month, the CBI registered a corruption case against Lalu, his wife Rabri, Tejaswi and others in awarding contracts for maintenance of hotels. Ever since the BJP demanded Tejaswi’s resignation, which RJD ruled out, saying the case is politically motivated and the CBI is being used as a political weapon by the central government. The Congress apparently tried to broker a deal between Lalu and Nitish to ease the crisis. But within a matter of hours on July 26, Nitish quit, split from the Grand Alliance and got the BJP’s support to continue as the Chief Minister.
Is it about corruption? Was it about secularism? Nitish’s history shows he’s not a believer in ideals. If he’s bothered about secularism, he wouldn’t have struck alliances with the BJP in the first place. The BJP grew in Bihar under his nose. If he’s a crusader against corruption, he wouldn’t have had a truck with the RJD. That Lalu Yadav is corrupt is hardly a secret. He still went with the Yadavs, but only to use the corruption card in two years and go to the BJP fold again. Nitish, in fact, had sent the feelers much in advance. He wanted to get rid of Lalu after coming to power, may be because he saw Lalu as a tough alliance partner or he feared RJD was eating into his base. It’s to be noted that despite all the moral claims Nitish made, the RJD got nine more seats than JDU in 2015. So first Nitish stopped criticising the Modi government. He then welcomed Modi’s disastrous demonetisation. Then came the presidential election in which Nitish backed the NDA candidate. In between the CBI filed the case against Tejaswi. And within weeks, Nitish has dumped the alliance and is back with the BJP.
You call it political morality? We don’t. It’s plain opportunism.