#Elections2019: Why Nitish Kumar is facing a crisis of credibility in Bihar

He might be riding the Modi wave, but he’s struggling with loss of trust, high corruption and crime in Bihar, and a drove of lost opportunities.

ByHridayesh Joshi
#Elections2019: Why Nitish Kumar is facing a crisis of credibility in Bihar
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Nitish Kumar will never forget February 12, 1994: the day of his first rebellion. It was the day he finally chose to part ways with colleague Lalu Yadav. Not only that, he decided to take him head-on and kicked off his ambitious cruise to the top.

The events unfolded that day at a Kurmi Chetna Maharally at Patna’s Gandhi Maidan, when he called for self-respect within his party, saying, “We want participation, not doles.” The journey that followed enthroned Nitish as Bihar’s chief minister in 2005.

Twenty-five years later, things are quite different.

On March 3, 2019, Patna was plastered with posters of Nitish and Narendra Modi. Remember, Nitish is the man who once said he would never join hands with Modi, even if he were “ground into dust”. Now at a Sankalp rally in Gandhi Maidan in the run-up to the 2019 polls, they shared the stage—but not quite. Nitish was more of a side-kick, completely overshadowed by the prime minister. The droop in his shoulders told their own story.

Posters of Nitish and Modi ahead of the March 3 rally. Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

Lalu, meanwhile, was conspicuous by his absence.

The rally was a sea of saffron flags and a parade of lotuses. Speakers were all praise for Modi in the wake of the Balakot airstrikes. The slogan “Modi hai to mumkin hai (If Modi is there, it’s possible)” rang through the air. Nitish’s face might have betrayed his discomfort but then again, compromise is the name of the game when it comes to politics.

Right now, Nitish Kumar needs all the help he can get. Once known as Mr Good Governance and a symbol of development, Nitish’s image has taken a beating in Bihar. On the other hand, high-pitched nationalism has added to Modi’s appeal—and that might tip the scales in Nitish’s favour.

Riding the Modi wave

In Tekabigha village, which falls under the Patna Sahib parliamentary constituency, a group of youth watch television. It’s just a few days since the Balakot airstrikes. On screen, Modi announces, “I will not spare you, I will beat you in your home (Ghar mein ghus kar marunga).” The group bursts into applause.

Twenty-nine-year old Prashant says, “We need a leader like Modi to fix Pakistan. We didn’t have a leader like him for the last 60 years.” Dileep Gupa, a retail trader in Chhapra, a few kilometres from Patna, says, “Our vote is for Modi. We would vote for him. Because of him, India is respected everywhere today.”

This implicit trust in Modi is widespread across Bihar’s cities, towns and villages. For a large section of people, Modi is a symbol of “strength” while the Congress and other parties of the Grand Alliance symbolise “weakness”.

Nitish Kumar’s family house in Bakthiarpur, 60 km from Patna. Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

Nitish has lost the ground he had painstakingly prepared through social welfare schemes and development work over the last 14 years. A tap for every home, electricity for every household, old age pensions, cycles for young students—schemes that worked before aren’t giving him mileage in his third tenure. Corruption is on the rise, law and order has deteriorated, and education is abysmal.

According to official statistics of the Bihar Police, 1,119 incidents of robberies on roads took place in 2016. This number rose 31 per cent to 1,464 in 2018. Similarly, the number of rapes increased by 46 per cent, from 1,008 in 2016 to 1,475 in 2018. Kidnappings went up by 40 per cent, from 7,323 in 2016 to 10,310 in 2018.

Abu Taiyyab, a 75-year-old resident of Bakhtiarpur, which is also Nitish’s paternal village, says crime is on the rise. “The young and old, all are scared of going out. Two days ago, a school-going child was kidnapped by criminals. Can’t children even go to school now?”

Given the situation, there’s a general consensus that Nitish will have to work really hard to save his government during the next Assembly polls. Senior journalist Amarnath Tiwari says: “Nitish is not a factor in these polls. He seems to have failed on issues of education, corruption and crime. His magic is missing on the ground. The entire Lok Sabha election is being fought in the name of Modi.”

‘Nitish could have filled the gap as PM candidate’

While the Modi wave is currently Nitish’s strength, it also makes him look weak—a leader without a backbone who frequently shifts sides. As a JD(U) leader told this reporter during the March 3 rally, “JD(U) supporters don’t know where their leader will be the next morning.”

So has Nitish’s “soft” approach lost him big opportunities? In 2017, historian and author Ramachandra Guha had said, “…the Congress is a party without a leader and Nitish is a leader without a party.” At the time, Guha had suggested that the reins of the Congress be handed to Nitish, so a capable leader and a mass-based party can come together to form an alternative to Narendra Modi.

A month after this, Nitish and his party joined the BJP. Guha would later comment that it had been a “joke” and “in the light of what has since happened, the joke is on me!”

Four days before Holi, Newslaundry meets Prakash Kumar, a small-time trader, in a market in Vaishali. After a little chit-chat, Kumar says he’s voting for the RJD’s Raghuvansh Prasad Singh as he’s a “competent” man and a good human being too. “Raghuvansh Babu”, as he’s called, is pitted against the Lok Janshakti Party’s Veena Devi in the Vaishali Lok Sabha constituency.

Kumar says, however, that his heart is with Nitish but he doesn’t like Modi. “Nitish’s presence was missed at the Mahagathbandhan rally in Kolkata. Had he been in the Opposition, the Opposition would have a prime ministerial candidate.” He adds: “Lalu’s vote bank did play a role in ensuring victory during the 2015 Assembly polls, but Nitish’s clean image and his vision were also key factors.”

Analysts state Nitish could have been the face of the Opposition’s Mahagathbandhan rally in Kolkata.

The rally Prakash Kumar is referring to was held on January 19 this year in Kolkata. Leaders from over 20 political parties, including three chief ministers, participated, while the TMC’s Mamata Banerjee tried to project herself as the captain of the ship. Modi himself had mocked the rally, calling it a government of “Mahamilawat” or “grand adulteration”.

But the fact remains that it’s an oft-repeated sentiment that Nitish could have been a formidable prime ministerial candidate against Modi—and it’s a sentiment that isn’t restricted to Bihar. Television journalist Balkrishna, who keeps close tabs on state politics, told this reporter in Muzaffarpur: “There’s no doubt that many people who don’t want to vote for the Opposition—or choose to vote for Modi—do so because the Opposition doesn’t have a credible face for the post of Prime Minister. Nitish could have filled the gap.”

A case of lost opportunities

“Where Nitish is sitting now, he cannot become the leader of a secular, democratic alliance … Till he hadn’t left the UPA, I used to say he could be the most appropriate choice for the post of prime minister.”

This is what CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury told Newslaundry. But there’s another side of this coin.

RCP Singh, a senior JD(U) leader and a close confidante of Nitish, says the manner in which Modi-baiters project Nitish as a PM candidate and the face of the Opposition is nothing more than “wishful thinking”. He emphasises that one needs to look at the “ground realities”.

According to those close to Nitish, the BJP’s massive win in the Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls two years ago, coupled with the corruption allegations against Lalu’s family, were decisive moments for Nitish. He wanted to get rid of Lalu and he could see his future with Modi even though he had to make certain compromises. RCP Singh says Nitish’s decision to wash his hands off Lalu’s was based on “principles to protect people’s interests”. “We couldn’t compromise with crime, corruption or communalism. Look what was happening at the time. The CBI was conducting raids on Lalu’s family and relatives. We asked them [the family] to come clean. But his [Lalu’s] attitude let the situation spiral out of control.”

Is this an excuse, though? Lalu and Nitish’s 40-year-old political journeys have always been fraught with their “frenemy”-ship. A crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha polls pulled them together, but that was out of necessity. Senior journalist Manikant Thakur says, “Nitish and Lalu can’t be together. They’re different characters.”

Thakur doesn’t think Nitish has been as effective as he’s made out to be on issues like governance and corruption. “After witnessing the worst during Lalu’s regime, no one raised questions during Nitish’s regime on his mistakes. Take the issue of corruption: Nitish didn’t do away with it. Earlier a cop charged ₹5,000 to register a case; now, he charges ₹25,000.”

Standing amidst a rush of leaders and journalists at the JD(U) office on Veerchand Patel Road in Patna, a senior JD(U) functionary opens up to Newslaundry about where Nitish stands. “He’s understood his political limit, he’s accepted he won’t become the prime minister. So he’s strengthening himself internally in Bihar now … He wants to make the most of the political situation. He’s struck a deal with the BJP for the Lok Sabha polls, cornering 50 per cent of the seats. Isn’t that a good deal?”

As the matter stands, the JD(U) won two seats in the last Lok Sabha polls and is currently contesting on 17 seats. The BJP won 22 seats in 2014 and is also contesting on 17 this year.

Senior BJP leaders told this reporter that the Modi-Shah duo understand ground realities and don’t want to upset the apple cart. From Bihar to Maharashtra, adjustments are being made to accommodate alliance partners. A senior minister in Modi’s cabinet, who is also a prominent BJP leader, recently told journalists in Delhi: “Not only have we given the JD(U) seats beyond what they deserve, but some of the seats we gave them should have never been let go by us.”

In particular, BJP leaders in Bihar are upset about handing over an entire chunk of the region to the JD(U): from Nawada and Jamui to Baanka-Bhagalpur-Katihar- Kisheganj-Purnia. BJP workers on several of these seats now remain inactive to show their anger. When the sitting MP from Valmikinagar, Satish Chandra Dubey, lost his party ticket when the seat was given to the JD(U), he decided to contest as an independent candidate. Later, Dubey was called to Patna by senior BJP leader Bhupendra Yadav. To assuage Dubey’s feelings, Yadav also took him to Delhi on a chartered flight to meet BJP chief Amit Shah.

BJP leader Saryu Rai, a minister in the Jharkhand government, told Newslaundry: “It is not good for the BJP to leave so many seats. Many people (in the party) are finding it difficult to accept it.”

For Muslims, Nitish has betrayed their trust

Whether or not Nitish Kumar is playing the hand that seems most pragmatic or practical to him, it’s translated into a clear loss of support. Fifty km away from Patna, in Chakdaulat village, Mohammed Ashraf has always been a supporter of Nitish—until two years ago. He’s now angry and feels betrayed.

“Our whole village is unhappy with him,” Ashraf says. “Muslim society is scared today. He won’t get 70 per cent of the voters here.”

In Tekbigha village, while the group of young men applaud Modi’s television speech after the Balakot airstrikes, a clutch of Muslim youth sit nearby. They refuse to talk to this reporter on camera but their bitterness is palpable.

One of them says, “Any news about any attack in Kashmir is broken to us with a tinge of sarcasm. We know Modi and his supporters are misleading people on action against Pakistan. If it’s a question of protecting the country, we can go and fight on the border too. But what sense does it make to bloat this issue? We can’t question them as it would raise questions on our own loyalty to the country.”

These Muslim youth say Nitish has betrayed them by allying with the BJP. Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

Muslims in Bihar were crestfallen when Nitish joined hands with the BJP. They constitute 16.5 per cent of the population in the state with a headcount of around 1.75 crore. The only option they have left is to trust Lalu and his party. As Mohammed Ashraf says, this election will witness a Muslim-Yadav combination in Bihar.

Will Nitish make a turnaround?

As Narendra Modi’s high-voltage campaign unfolds across India, there’s speculation on the number of seats the BJP might win. Will the party receive a full majority, or will it require allies? If it falls below the majority mark, how far away will it be from the magic figure?

And in such a case, where will Nitish Kumar stand?

In his recently published autobiography, Lalu said that six months after joining the BJP, Nitish wanted to return to the RJD. Local buzz about this has been around even before Lalu’s book came out, and UPA leaders have been underlining Nitish’s attitude as well, probably in the hope to keep him in the Opposition against the BJP.

But can a turnaround be anticipated from Nitish Kumar? No one really knows, but Lalu has often said Nitish is an extremely shrewd politician. However, a bureaucrat who has worked in Patna explains this in a different way.

He says, “Whatever Lalu does, he does openly. His friendliness and animosity is there for everyone to see. For example, it’s normal for him to chew tobacco in front of the common people; he does the same in front of TV cameras too. But Nitish Kumar also chews tobacco—just that very few people know about it.”

Politics is, after all, a game of possibilities, and no one knows it better than Nitish.


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