On the face of it, JD(U) national president and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar practises schizophrenic politics — he frustrates his alliance partners in the state, RJD and Congress, by siding with the NDA on demonetisation, but he also accuses Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of not respecting the federal structure of the country and targets the BJP’s “saffron” agenda of love jihad and ghar wapsi.
In fact, Nitish’s politics moves on twin tracks — one for Bihar, and the other for the Centre, in line with his national ambition. Even as an NDA partner (until 2013), he had differed with the BJP and supported the Congress over the candidature of Pranab Mukherjee as President. And after parting ways with the BJP, he has often not seen eye-to-eye with his Mahagathbandhan partners.
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So, he went ahead with trying to replicate the Grand Alliance idea in Uttar Pradesh even as the RJD firmly refused to play ball, and he took on Samajwadi Party chief and Lalu Prasad’s relative Mulayam Singh Yadav by entering into an alliance with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal and another small party. Recently, Lalu attended the SP’s foundation day ceremony in Lucknow, but Nitish stayed away.
Now that Nitish’s stand on demonetisation has fuelled talk of his growing proximity to the BJP, he has reacted strongly. He has protested reports about his rumoured meeting with BJP president Amit Shah, and his alleged “talks” with Prime Minister Modi. He has termed these “canards” as “an attempt at political assassination”, and made it clear that his national politics has little to do with the Bihar Grand Alliance, which has a “separate and distinct agenda with complete clarity”. He has addressed his legislators in the middle of the Bihar Assembly’s winter session to clear ambiguities and “misgivings”.
But Nitish is obviously uncomfortable with the stand of his alliance partners on the issue. While Bihar Congress president Ashok Kumar Choudhary went so far as to say that his party would walk out of the alliance if the high command so desired, Lalu got his son and Deputy CM Tejashwi Prasad Yadav to toe Nitish’s line. The RJD chief might have acted differently if the RJD and Congress had the numbers together to form the government, though. The two parties have 107 MLAs — 15 short of majority. Lalu needs Nitish, and Nitish can afford to pursue his twin-track politics as per his political convenience. The Bihar CM’s politics on demonetisation — maintaining his distance from Mamata Banerjee who, along with Arvind Kejriwal, has emerged as the most powerful voice against Modi’s move — has already split the opposition, and forced his West Bengal counterpart to recalibrate her Monday Bharat Bandh to merely a Jan Aakrosh march.
To be fair, Nitish had taken several anti-corruption measures in Bihar between 2007 and 2011. He brought the Bihar Special Courts Act, 2009 (implemented in 2010) to include a provision to allow the government to seize the property of officials accused of corruption — and flaunts the schools and children’s homes that the government has opened in the seized buildings.
He did away with the MLALAD scheme following allegations that it was being used as a “commission fund”. The voluntary disclosure of property by all government functionaries from the CM to Class 3 staff, and the introduction of the Right to Public Services Act and Public Grievances Redressal Act was in line with the government’s professed “zero tolerance” for corruption. Nitish annoyed the opposition, and even his party leader Sharad Yadav, through these steps, but succeeded in taking the high moral ground.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, Nitish accused the BJP of spending too much money and later, frequently reminded Modi about his promise of bringing back black money from abroad. Now that he has a definite national plan, he supports the PM on demonetisation, with the rider that the public should not be inconvenienced. According to a close aide of the CM: “He is very conscious of his national image and does not want any confusion over his stand against corruption. He has followed up his support to demonetisation with a demand for targeting benami property and unaccounted for gold. He also senses that demonetisation would hurt illegal liquor traders. Since prohibition is his big national plank, any measure that helps that, suits him.”
In the specific context of Bihar, both Lalu and Nitish know that it is Nitish who has an option. The JD(U) and BJP together have 128 MLAs — well over the majority mark. But Nitish — whose Bihar charter is centred around “seven resolutions”, including those on electricity, water, promises of student credit cards and, of course, prohibition — shares an unwritten common minimum programme with Lalu. A senior JD(U) leader said: “What will Nitish get by joining hands with the BJP at this stage? He is into his third term as CM, and may well get the fourth term as well. Had Nitish accepted Modi as his leader, JD(U) could have been second largest party in the NDA, and Nitish could possibly have been Deputy PM. Nitish is clear in his politics, but others are reading too much into his support to the BJP on a particular issue. The only situation in which Nitish might be forced to rework his politics will be if, amidst the alliance’s pulls and pressures, Lalu pushes him to the wall, and law and order goes completely out of control.”
But Lalu has always been a good reader of politics. When he had declared Nitish as the CM candidate, he had talked about the compulsions of “drinking venom”. Lalu knows Nitish remains indispensable for him, at least until Tejashwi comes out of the shadow of both his father and Nitish Kumar. For the moment, Nitish is likely to continue to loosen and tighten the thread of the political kite as the situation demands.