When Nitish Kumar retained his Bihar crown in November 2015 in bitterly contested assembly election, he had two things in mind: to retain his development image despite being in the company of his arch rival for two decades, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and to look for a national plank on the basis of his “good governance”. He had gone into the 2015 assembly campaign with a new coinage: ‘seven resolutions’ or ‘saat nischay’, which was a smart repackaging of his development programme, giving the energy sector top billing. He had also included students’ credit cards and clean water supply as part of the package that had to be delivered to people in a time-bound manner.
The idea was to clearly demarcate his development agenda from his NDA days and give it a catchy new name under a new political realignment – the Grand Alliance with the RJD and the Congress. He kept the rest of his agenda on road, health and education going as usual.
And even though he looked like a supporter of the status quo, Nitish Kumar wanted to shake things up with the Public Grievances Redressal Act to make the system more responsible, responsive and less bureaucratic in providing 49 government services. The biggest problem, however, remained that the government did not do much about complaints of rampant corruption in land mutation clearances.
The biggest issue he espoused in order to expand his constituency to the national level, was to pass a prohibition law in April this year – it was one of his main poll campaign promises in an effort to woo women voters. He first considered only a partial prohibition by banning country liquor; however, the overwhelming response of women and self-help groups combined with feedback from over-enthusiastic supporters emboldened the CM to declare total prohibition from April 5. The media supported the move until he added some stringent – draconian to some – provisions in August. He was then criticised for incorporating provisions such as making all adults responsible in cases of liquor consumption, the seizure of any family member for the same offense and the confiscation of property of an offender.
Nitish Kumar responded to these attacks with his monkish indifference at the Rajgir convention of his party where he said that when a great task is undertaken, one is first ridiculed, then challenged and finally supported by his critics. The Gopalganj hooch tragedy, in which 16 people died, seriously undermined the prohibition policy. Though over 10,000 cases had been lodged under the liquor law and over 13,000 people have been arrested, liquor continues to find its way to Bihar via UP, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Implementation of liquor law will continue to challenge the state police.
Bihar’s CM did succeed in making liquor a national issue and he keeps up the pressure on the Centre to impose it at the national level. In the state, the RJD was not in favour of the liquor ban initially as it would hurt the interest of several Yadav liquor traders. But the RJD chief had to buckle under pressure because Nitish enjoyed a sure shot advantage over Lalu despite being a junior alliance partner.
Some RJD leaders openly protested against the stringent provisions of the liquor law, but Nitish did not soften his stance. Lalu, who is known for his political sagacity beyond his image of a casual politician, sorted out the matter even though there was pressure on him to assert the RJD’s position as senior alliance partner with 81 MLAs as against JD (U)’s 71. Deputy CM Tejashwi Prasad Yadav tried some political posturing by putting only his photograph in some of advertisements of his department, but Nitish Kumar continued to hold sway. The third alliance partner, Congress, always looked to favour Nitish at the expense of Lalu.
In the initial six months, Nitish faced tough opposition on the deteriorating law and order front when cases of extortion and bank robberies rose alarmingly, in particular, bank robberies – at least 50 of them. Nitish took recourse to comparative crime data saying the occasional spurt in crime must not be taken as yardstick to make sweeping statements.
The alliance suffered a jolt when Nitish Kumar appeared to support the Centre on demonetisation. This displeased the Congress and the RJD, but Nitish said he would continue to support any anti-corruption drive. Lalu was forced to revisit his strategy and lie low on protests against demonetisation. TMC Chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee came to Patna to sit on dharna against demonetisation, but Lalu and his family skipped the event under pressure from Nitish.
Just when whispers of Nitish cosying up to the BJP began, Nitish visited Lalu and reassured him that the alliance was intact and doing well. Nitish clearly adopted twin politics: one that works for the Grand Alliance in Bihar and another that keeps boosting his national image by giving occasional and issue-based support to BJP.
Nitish has done a good balancing act in his first year, but Lalu’s silence is only strategic. He is waiting for his sons to grow out of his political shadow and he hopes Nitish will hit a weak patch sooner rather than later. The opposition BJP does not have much to protest – it releases some data on ‘poor’ governance at regular intervals. The appointment of a Yadav leader, Nityanand Rai, as BJP state chief looks like a good move but Nitish is in control for now. Time will tell if prohibition has national takers. Till the BJP recovers from 2015 loss and Lalu’s sons come of age politically, Nitish will continue to hold sway.