Nitish Kumar: The political opportunist who has no permanent allies

Born into a family of peasant Kurmis, Nitish Kumar’s rise in Bihar politics was marked by the sidelining of the Yadavs whose caste-based agenda had dominated Bihari politics until then.

Published: 28th July 2017 01:10 PM  |   Last Updated: 28th July 2017 01:10 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: “I shall get power, by hook or crook, but once I have got the power I will do good work,” the 66-year-old JD(U) leader and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar once said. His decision to step out of his alliance with RJD-Congress and join hands with the BJP has surprised everyone.

It also proved that he is a man who indeed stands by his words. Born into a family of peasant Kurmis, Nitish Kumar’s rise in Bihar politics was marked by the sidelining of the Yadavs whose caste-based agenda had dominated Bihari politics until then.

The dawn of Nitish’s political career goes back to the 1970s. He was a protégé of Jayaprakash Narayan and in 1977 he took part in anti-Emergency protests, for which he was jailed. In 1985, he was elected to Bihar Assembly.

But unlike his contemporary Lalu Prasad, he had to wait another 12 years for his national political career to take off. It was in 1989 that he won a Lok Sabha election. It was a time when the Yadav chieftain was being groomed by Karpoori Thakur as a leading light of the opposition.

Although Nitish teamed up with Lalu Prasad in 1989,  their friendship foundered once the Yadav ushered in an era of caste-based politics in Bihar.

“After an initial association with Lalu Prasad Yadav; Nitish Kumar rejected identity politics, recognizing that Bihar had to transcend caste if it was to grow,” wrote Arun Sinha in his book Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar.

The duo soon parted ways in the 1990s until they joined hands again in 2015. In making this oscillation, Nitish broke off from the Janata Dal, formed the Samata Party with George Fernandes. and merged Samata with Sharad Yadav’s Janata Dal (United) in 2005.

But then, against the grain of non-Congress regional parties, the JD(U) forged an alliance with the BJP, which lasted until 2013 until Nitish, now chief minister, fell out with the BJP over its decision to promote Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate ahead of the 2014 election.

In the 1996 general election, Nitish sided with the BJP for which Atal Bihari Vajpayee rewarded him by making him minister of state for agriculture.

In 2013, as now, the need was Nitish Kumar’s primary motive. He needed the support of the 17 million Muslims in Bihar to hold onto power, and supporting Narendra Modi was not convenient.

Ahead of the Bihar elections in 2015, Nitish Kumar patched up with Lalu and the two formed an alliance with Congress. Dubbed as the ‘grand alliance’, it stopped Modi at the portals of Patna and was therefore touted as the wall that would stop the BJP in 2019.

It took just less than two years for Nitish to feel the itch again. Nitish pulled out of the  Mahagathbandhan because he needed to appear clean and relevant.

The Kurmi leader’s frequent break-ups and patch-ups highlight his opportunistic attitude towards politics. Although political opponents deride this tendency of his, it must not be forgotten that Bihar did take impressive strides in governance during his stint. In 2005, when Nitish Kumar first took over as Bihar chief minister, the third most populous state in India had been reeling under poverty and became the classical Bimaru state. Infrastructure was crumbling and industrial growth was marginal.  Bihari migrated in droves to other states in search of livelihood.

Bihar continues to be among the poorest states in India but a lot has changed. Poverty rates have dropped. So has the number of migrants. A measurable growth in infrastructure was complemented by a corresponding rise in industrial production.  “The conventional wisdom in Bihar’s political circles was that development does not win votes. Nitish Kumar challenged that assumption and changed the face of the state,” wrote Arun Sinha.

Will his latest gamble pay off? It is unclear for now. By aligning with the BJP, Nitish has sacrificed his prospects as a future leader of the Opposition in the Parliament. Moreover, he is left to seek glory under the shadows of the man whom he derided in 2014 -- Narendra Modi. In other words, with his latest move, he sealed his fate with that of the Prime Minister.

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