Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has in recent weeks begun to regularly talk about reservation in the private sector – something he chose not to take up in the last 12 years. This came as a follow up to the Bihar cabinet acceding to reservations in outsourced government jobs, most likely as a result of serious deliberation.
Fact is, Nitish Kumar has been looking for a national issue that will ensure him the national spotlight. In the wake of his rejoining the NDA, under the alibi of corruption charges against RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s younger son and then deputy CM Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, the media had certainly not been kind, describing his parting with the grand alliance in Bihar a betrayal of its mandate and a brazen act of political opportunism.
All the BJP’s attention, moreover, has not lasted. As pragmatism returns to Patna, the BJP has started cold-shouldering him, if not snubbing him. The JD(U) did express its displeasure privately at not being given couple of ministerial berths at the Centre in the recent cabinet expansion, while Nitish’s demand for central university status to Patna University (PU) in its 100th anniversary year was not conceded by the PM. He merely asked PU to push itself to become a world class university and get special funds and autonomy.
Nitish has hardly been a pushover in politics, whether in company of stalwarts like George Fernandes, Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, or Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani. But for last three months, he is trying hard to appease the PM and gushing over him. The Nitish Kumar 2017 version looks a pale shadow of himself. He does not ooze the same confidence he did till a year ago. He is looking like someone who has taken a retirement plan from politics at the expense of his political grit and moral authority.
The return to reservation, even in the private sector, is an attempt to regain lost ground and respect. Nitish knows he has been reduced to just another NDA chief minister but he still wants a national stake. His clamour for reservations has brought him some national spotlight. He knows reservation is a sustainable political plank, unlike prohibition, which has exhausted itself as a political plank. His newfound zeal of anti-dowry and anti-child marriage campaign does not cut much ice with a national audience. This is where reservation matters. The more other parties keep discussing it, the more he will be at the centre of national attention.
Already, Bihar has become the first state to implement reservation in outsourcing jobs. Now that former Union minister Yashwant Sinha and a current critic of the Modi government has dared Nitish Kumar to take his demand for reservation in the private sector to the Centre, Nitish may well feel that he has brought some life to his politics, which was otherwise in the danger of being restricted to Bihar. Nitish knows all the political parties will back him, albeit with some riders and criticism. Both the BJP and Lalu Yadav have already supported him on this matter.
Over the years, Nitish Kumar has changed political parties and alliances with such facility that people have begun calling him a chameleon. In 2009 Lok Sabha polls and 2010 Assembly polls, he ensured that Narendra Modi did not campaign in Bihar. In 2012, he launched first salvo against Modi by saying that anybody wishing to be PM should have a “clean and secular” image. In 2013 he had severed ties with the NDA. In 2014, his JD (U) lost badly in the Lok Sabha polls, but teamed with RJD and Congress to stop Narendra Modi-led juggernaut of BJP in the 2015 Assembly elections by winning 178 of 243 seats.
Nitish Kumar had become the darling of the media, which believed he was the only leader to take on Narendra Modi. Nitish was being perceived as a game-changer. His party had become the most-discussed party nationally, after the BJP and the Congress.
People had begun calling it a David vs Goliath contest, between him and Modi. Everyone liked to discuss this David.
But July 2017 upset all political analysis and calculations. Having rejoined the NDA, Nitish was all of a sudden reduced to a political non-entity at the national level. He had hoped to change the contours of the game – perhaps he hoped he could change the BJP from within and climb the ladder in that party.
Whatever the reason, it hasn’t worked for Nitish Kumar. He is now desperately trying to scramble for a new face, a new kind of politics. Having been the architect of promoting the Extreme Backward Classes and the Most Backward Classes in Bihar, Nitish believes he can change the circumstances to suit his own ends.
This is probably the toughest challenge of his political career so far. Will he be able to climb out of the trough that he willingly stepped into? All of Bihar, nay India, watches for the answer.