An estranged friend offers three shades of Nitish Kumar’s politics that set the template for the 2015 battle.
Year 2004: Nitish Kumar, who has just demitted office as Union railway minister, is discussing the NDA defeat at the Patna residence of his close confidant and Hindi litterateur Prem Kumar Mani, who has been with the JD(U) leader since their Samata Party days. Mani says the Godhra riots might well be one of the reasons for Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ‘India Shining’ falling flat. Nitish Kumar vehemently disagrees. “Narendra Modi is the emerging face of the BJP. He is an OBC Ghanchi. He is very hard-working. He has been a victim of the Brahmin lobby of the BJP that includes Atal Bihari Vajpayee. One should meet him once’he played host to me sometime back. I have become a fan of the man’.
2010 dinner cancellation: Mani, who was then a JD(U) Member of the Legislative Council, wrote a letter to Nitish Kumar suggesting to him [that he] “correct the blunder” of the dinner cancellation for BJP leaders by “talking it out” with Narendra Modi. Mani later met Nitish asking if Vajpayee could play a good host to Pervez Musharraf after the Kargil war; JD(U) cancelling the dinner for Modi amounted to an insult to six crore Gujaratis. Nitish did not look too pleased with Mani’s blunt arguments. Nitish started distancing himself from Mani and terminated his Upper House membership eight months ahead of his tenure in 2011.
2015: Mani says, “As far as I know Nitish, I firmly hold that he took a stand against Modi because of his prime-ministerial ambition and growing signals of Modi being ahead in the PM race. Had Nitish not split (with) NDA, JD(U) would have got 22 to 25 Lok Sabha seats, which would have denied a majority to BJP of its own. Controlling Modi from within NDA could have been a much better option than throwing a challenge from outside. But Nitish still has the political gain, irrespective of the 2015 results, of being the nucleus of anti-Modi and anti-BJP politics.”
Nitish Kumar’s cardplay against Modi’s
Nitish, always diplomatic at public fora, bares it all in a one-on-one talk: “BJP played five cards in the 2014 Lok Sabha election — development, caste (social justice) card, Modi’s OBC chai-wallah face, youth and communal polarisation cards. All its cards succeeded.” This thought process alone looks set to decide the template of not just Nitish’s and Bihar’s politics for the 2015 election. Nitish may well have asked himself how many of Modi’s cards he could match up with. He started his cardplay with hiring a professional publicity man, Prashant Kishore, to reinforce his development agenda in an ‘organised manner’. He got Lalu (Prasad) aboard for the all-important caste card. He also ensured that the grand alliance does not play too much of the secularism card this time… With Muslim voters under one umbrella of grand alliance parties — RJD, JD (U) and Congress — he does not want to rake up a communal versus secular line, which may prove counterproductive. For the fourth card, that of the face of the 2015 election, Nitish has gone gung-ho with his CM projection against NDA hiding behind Modi… He asks if PM Modi was interested in taking ‘additional charge’ as Bihar CM. Nitish believes he is better prepared than last time to take on his rival in a card-for-card game. The fifth card — that of youth, however, remains a grey area for Nitish.
On good terms with Modi, never with Nitish: Paswan
The volte-face on (Ram Vilas) Paswan’s much-flaunted secular stance against the BJP had created a flutter… It was the same Paswan, who had boasted of his anti-Modi stand before President Pervez Musharraf during his Pakistan trip during his UPA days… Paswan has either reworked his stand because of political realignment with BJP or was telling half-truths on his resignation as Union minister in 2002. He has been wary of touching upon the tricky Godhra subject. Yet, Paswan concedes the full version now: “I have always enjoyed a good personal relationship with Narendra Modi since our days of anti-Congressism and was among the few important guests to attend his swearing-in as Gujarat CM in 2002. Even when I quit NDA in 2002, I attended his family functions in Ahmedabad in subsequent years. I remember Modiji holding my hand at that function and saying, ‘Please keep coming to Gujarat and hurling criticism at me and I will still welcome you.’ The biggest reason for my resigning as NDA minister was Nitish, who enjoyed great proximity to NDA convener George Fernandes, who played a role in changing the portfolio of Sharad Yadav and mine. Though my changed ministry, coal, was not bad, I was deeply hurt because of not being informed or taken into confidence… It was Nitish who had provoked my quitting NDA then. I had never been on good terms with Nitish ever since he had taken to national politics.”
Why Manjhi is now silent on upper castes
(Jitan Ram) Manjhi… carved a niche for himself by taking on upper castes with a flurry of controversial statements, including calling Dalits the real habitants and upper castes “foreigners”. Such remarks gave him instant publicity and he was being discussed between Lalu and Nitish and as the constant third angle of Bihar politics, Ram Vilas Paswan. But Manjhi’s anti-upper caste politics was unsustainable.
He has been more in the company of upper castes than Dalits. He chose an alliance partner, BJP, with a substantial upper caste base. Ever since his forced resignation on February 20th without a floor test, he has not made any anti-upper-caste statement. There has been no off-the-cuff remark or any slip-of-the-tongue — something that used to be a common feature during his stint as CM. Manjhi accepts: “There is no need to do so now.” This reveals that all his controversial statements were part of a well-thought out political strategy and that he must have planned even his off-the-cuff remarks. The person, who had not allowed any slip-of-the-tongue during his long political career, had allowed a surfeit of them during those nine months from the Bihar hot seat with a definite purpose.