Nitish Kumar Political Career: With his latest somersault, JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar has again proved himself to be the consummate politician, managing to keep himself relevant and staying the face of every alliance, irrespective of the company he keeps.
At 71, he remains the only product of the JP Movement of 1974-75, besides his deputy, Sushil Kumar Modi, who remains firmly in command. An ailing Lalu Prasad has virtually ceded reins to son Tejashwi Yadav.
Ironically, having experimented with the BJP once too often, Nitish has come to believe his home lies under the larger socialist umbrella, if JD(U) sources are to be believed. A more pragmatic reason is the overwhelming presence of Narendra Modi in the BJP, which left little space for Nitish to manoeuvre. The warning came in the 2020 Assembly elections, where the JD(U), contesting in an NDA that contained the BJP and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) seen to have the BJP’s blessings, was reduced to nearly half of the BJP’s tally (43 compared to 74).
The leader of the Kurmi OBC caste, with just 3% presence in the state, Nitish has deftly played his cards in consistently choosing partners with a stronger social base. The BJP has been supporting him since 2005, barring four years (June 2013 to July 2017). The RJD, in spite of a stronger social base, with the cushion of Muslim-Yadav (about 30%) votes, had to accept Nitish as the face of their last coalition government. The new one too, despite Tejashwi’s rising profile, will lean on Nitish’s broad shoulders to carry it through the formative period.
Few who knew Nitish at the start of his political career would have imagined him coming this far, or showing such chameleon-like traits. He spent his first years in the shadow of the flamboyant Lalu. The Samata Party that he later founded with George Fernandes carried the stamp of that firebrand leader. Fernandes was the first person to suffer Nitish’s change of heart, when he was unceremoniously sidelined in the party he founded.
It was after the Samata Party didn’t take off, getting only seven seats in 1995, that Nitish made the political calculation that a three-way fight would never allow him to grow. In 1996, for the first time, he hitched his wagon to the BJP, with top leaders A B Vajpayee and L K Advani acknowledging the importance of having a credible name, that rose above caste, plus had a long political lineage, by their side.
In 2000, as part of the NDA, Nitish first became Bihar CM. Though that government lasted seven days, it established him as an alternative to Lalu, who was bitterly opposed to the BJP.
Through it all, what has stood Nitish in good stead is his reputation as the man who turned around Bihar, a state calling out for a leader who spoke development. While the shine of that has got blunted in recent years, Nitish’s “15 years vs 15 years” plank during the 2020 Assembly elections, comparing his tenure to the RJD’s, still held a punch for residents of the state.
This is why, even after its graph started rising in Bihar, the BJP knew the value of Nitish in its corner. Minus Nitish, the BJP had fallen to 53 seats from 91 in 2015. With him, it went up to 74.
His socialist initiation into politics notwithstanding, Nitish is not as ill at ease with the Sangh Parivar as he would like fans to believe. He spent his formative years in the company of RSS ideologue K N Govindacharya, and is said to have read almost all RSS literature.
Meanwhile, as Nitish bids farewell to it again, the fact is that the BJP still has no face of the stature of the JD(U) leader in the state – with Sushil Kumar Modi already sidelined, and Nityanand Rai struggling to make his presence felt.