Sankarshan Thakur describes a long-ago photograph of Nitish Kumar, standing beside his bride Manju, at their wedding. “To look at the picture, you’d think he had been caught in a moment of torment. He refused to meet the camera’s eye. He has a desolate look about him, his gaze fixed someplace ambiguous, almost as if he were saying his presence there was off the record”.
For the most part of the book, despite the obvious access the writer has to his protagonist, Kumar is an unwilling presence, looking away whenever he is locked in the frame. Mostly, the writer is happy to let him do so. In fact, he makes the most of Kumar’s reticence, prolonging it and playing with it, imagining and evoking him from the anecdote of a colleague, mentor or friend, and stories of his time and place.
Despite the restless, easily diverted narrative, there are some arresting images from the journey of the man who seemed to be awkwardly attending his own wedding and who is today the most prominent party-pooper at the Modi bash. The earnest Lohiaite who so objected to his father accepting dowry that he forced him to return it to Manju’s father and threatened to cancel the wedding. The young engineer who burnt his original degree during a protest against unemployment, unlike other protestors who set fire to the xerograph copies. The “padha likha Kurmi” who flinched from playing to the caste gallery after the Belchi atrocity. Lalu’s rival, who waited more than 30 years to emerge from his shadow. The politician who lost election after election, and persisted till he won — it took Kumar 10 years, four elections and an alliance with the BJP to take Bihar away from Lalu.
There are other, edgier images. The Union minister in the Vajpayee cabinet who stayed on after Gujarat 2002, ignoring the call of his conscience, because his goal was to oust Lalu in Bihar and he needed the BJP to do it. The chief minister who made all the difference in a state that had only ever been ruled and never governed, but who wasn’t above the old stratagem when it came to the crunch, courting and harbouring the muscleman or bahubali, retreating from his bold plans for land reform at the first signs of a backlash. The man who is always numero uno, never first among equals, because he has such self-righteous disdain for his own partymen and colleagues. The leader who seeks to whip up fervour over “special status” for his state when he seems outmanoeuvred in the caste game.
Yet, through it all, Sankarshan is empathetic, and more than that. The less-flattering sketches of Kumar are almost always accompanied by evocations of a tormented core. A seemingly boundless sympathy for the protagonist is what makes this book most engaging, and is ultimately its main weakness. Kumar’s second term is tougher, the writer says somewhere in the book, because now he will be compared not with his predecessor, who forever upturned the caste equation and also delivered eye-catching ruin, but with himself in his first term. Yet, Sankarshan himself, continues to gaze upon Kumar primarily as the anti-Lalu.
For a book that for all its distancing games speaks far too knowingly and much too often from a place inside Kumar’s head, Single Man never fully answers some questions: what does it mean for a state in desperate search of a predictable government and an abiding change to have at its helm a man who makes himself the indispensable centre of everything he builds in “Naya Bihar”? How much is Kumar the grand ideological counterpoint to Modi in the nation’s politics, and how much is his opposition to him a visceral reaction to another domineering and unyielding persona much like himself?
The singleness of Kumar could be the necessary shield of a changemaker. The cocoon for a driven and ambitious man who has hovered too long on the margins. Or the conceit of a leader who has narrowed his vision to an obsessive focus on his own legacy. As playful as it is in its structuring of the story of one of the leading politicians of our time, Single Man seems to constantly hold back from going where its many strands promise to take it.