Even with his studious grasp of political implications across decades, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar cannot afford to miss the significance of the next 12 months in navigating his political trajectory. He’s starting early with the symbolism of a street campaign.
On January 5, Nitish will embark on a yatra across Bihar from Bettiah, the headquarters of West Champaran district. In line with some of his earlier yatras, he has pitched this one as a social awareness campaign, with prohibition as its centrepiece alongside other issues like child marriage. In the wake of the flak he drew for the in Saran district and his response, the battle of perceptions around the prohibition policy and its shoddy execution will not escape his sense of political projection.
It’s particularly important because it further dents Nitish’s dwindling claims of good governance and a coalition that was considered formidable in his first two terms as chief minister. Besides his carefully crafted , Nitish had moulded governance into a distinct constituency for a floating section of the electorate. That, however, has been vulnerable for the last few years, made worse by apprehensions about law and order and his inept handling of prohibition. Nitish now seems to be in a delicate phase, weighing his political capital vis-à-vis his famed options for manoeuvrability.
The in power equations, executed in August this year, might have constrained Nitish’s elbow space for now. This flip saw him breaking away from the NDA and reuniting with the RJD-led Mahagatbandhan featuring the Congress.
But there is also a sense that his political capital might not escape unscathed this time. In his earlier expedient readings of power play in the state and its suitability to his style of leadership, Nitish had directed his craft and sense of timing to find the mean between brinkmanship, political capital and tradeoffs. Within a frame of post Mandal politics and using Lohiaite idiom in the state, he took his chances. The space available for his manoeuvrability was largely a function of inconclusive political equations and their unsettled social bases in the state.
Under such conditions, Nitish played the maximalist – aware of how he and his party could leverage the role of being the missing piece in the inadequate claims of his two key rivals, the RJD and BJP, to the seat of power. But the August somersault might have shrunk this space for him, at least for the time being.
First, Nitish will be concerned about the saleability of his new reasoning on why he switched allies now. This might undermine the political capital he had managed to salvage in earlier abrupt flip-flops in choosing coalition partners. That was made possible because social blocks of support for his party and their allies rallied behind him. Additionally, his governance claims found favour with the electorate.
But he can’t be sure of that now. Even if his new allies led by the RJD have a compact support base, his party’s extremely backward caste vote base has been wooed by the BJP for long – with some degree of success.
Second, the RJD, a bitter rival turned ally, does not come across as a natural ally to Nitish’s political enterprise. Moreover, the presence of RJD leader and deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav as chief minister in waiting, even occasionally endorsed by Nitish, will not make it easy for the JDU chief and his party to resurrect their political stock. The JDU, infested by factions, needs the glue of power to remain intact. But Nitish has been uncharacteristically constrained in offering it full play. He’s aware that a show of solidarity with post Mandal formations like the RJD is fraught with risk in the long run. After all, the configuration of social base and competitive politics hasn’t allowed them a long run in the past, even if the numbers are loaded in their favour. So, the time-buying utility of the current coalition will be constantly tested. This will unnerve the JDU, which will be anxious about poaching. At the same time, poll setbacks like the will do no good to the morale of the largely confused party cadre.
Third, even if Nitish fancies a role for himself in national politics, particularly in the runup to the Lok Sabha poll and the post-election scene at the centre, his moves have been a non-starter so far. 2023 may be watched for how Nitish pitches himself as a player in stitching alliances or as a moving piece in alternative combines in the opposition space. Unlike other ambitious regional leaders eyeing key roles in national politics, Nitish has been willing to give the Congress a lead role in the alternative formation at the centre.
In September, for instance, at of some opposition parties at Fatehabad in Haryana, Nitish talked about giving the Congress a place in the formation of a larger, united, anti-Bharatiya Janata Party front for the 2024 Lok Sabha poll. As Newslaundry wrote at the time:
“In doing so, the Bihar CM batted for the need to build a ‘main front’, instead of exploring the idea of forming a ‘third front’ – the oft-talked about alliance of regional and smaller parties. It also indicated that he’s seeking bipolarity in the 2024 poll, and the first step towards that is persuading potential allies to look at the upcoming election in the same way.”
In grasping the immediate as well as the essential, Nitish knows that any chance of setting his sights on a national role next year will mean not losing sight of his political stock in his home state. That’s why retrieving his political capital in Bihar is not separate from his stock performance in the national capital.
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