Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar Monday said it was a “matter of personal happiness” for him that state Governor Ram Nath Kovind — a man with whom his relations were “ideal” — would be the NDA candidate for President. What lies behind Nitish’s support for Kovind?
One, Kovind, who took over in August 2015, is the first Governor in several years who has chosen not to confront the Chief Minister on any matter whatsoever. Devanand Konwar, who was Governor from June 2009 to March 2013, battled endlessly with the government over appointment of Vice-Chancellors, adversely impacting higher education in the state for a good part of Nitish’s second term (which began in 2010). Relations between the government and Raj Bhawan improved during D Y Patil’s tenure (March 2013-November 2014), and Kovind — after taking over from West Bengal Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi who held additional charge of Bihar for nine months — worked harder on the relationship.
Before the Assembly elections of October-November 2015, the JD(U) took serious exception to Prime Minister Narendra Modi playing the “Dalit card” by appointing Kovind — but after returning to power, Nitish never described the Governor either as a “BJP man” or one “who listened only to Delhi”. The Governor and Chief Minister hit it off very well, and Kovind stayed away from the media.
The creation of search committees in 2014 — with nominees from both Raj Bhawan and the government — to pick VCs after the bruising legal battles of 2012-13 over appointments made by Konwar, helped improve the relations. Kovind appointed several VCs and pro VCs, and the government raised no objections. As ex officio chancellor, Kovind met regularly with VCs. He was never confrontational — even though not quite malleable either — and Raj Bhawan and the CM’s official residence at 1 Anne Marg seemed closer than the 150 yards that separates them.
The relationship’s litmus test came with the Bihar Excise (Amendment) Bill, 2016, as the Opposition and media sharpened their criticism of the many “draconian” provisions of the new prohibition law. But if the Bihar BJP hoped the Governor would return the Bill, Kovind refused to give them reason for cheer. Both this law, and the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016 that followed, received the Governor’s assent. Kovind, an advocate, chose to leave it to Patna High Court to adjudicate on criticisms of the prohibition law, many of which had taken the form of public interest petitions. Privately, BJP leaders grumbled that it would have helped to have the Governor question some of the new law’s provisions.
Politically, Kovind being Dalit suits Nitish well. His experiment of making Jitan Ram Manjhi Chief Minister in May 2014 as part of his Mahadalit outreach boomeranged, but there is political capital to be gained in backing a Dalit for the country’s highest office. Nitish will likely attempt an Opposition consensus on Kovind, and might even break ranks should an agreement be elusive. The Chief Minister is keen to hold up the flag for regional aspirations, cater to his constituency, and to boost his ‘national’ image — in supporting Kovind, he gets them all.