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Nitish Kumar: Breaking Free

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The grand alliance of Bihar begins to unravel as Nitish Kumar loses patience with his wily partner

AT A RECEPTION IN a South Delhi farmhouse hosted two months ago by a former high-profile bureaucrat long associated with Bihar, a senior Union minister was holding court when he announced that Lalu Prasad, president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), had been confabulating lately with some leaders of the BJP, imploring them for help and offering to “finish off” his partner in power back in his home state, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United). Prasad and Kumar had forged a formidable mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) to neutralise Narendra Modi’s magic ahead of Bihar’s Assembly polls held in late 2015. In return now for snapping ties, Lalu Prasad wanted graft cases against his family to be dropped. The RJD leader’s offer, as the minister explained, was straightforward: if the Centre were to save him and his kin, Bihar would be BJP’s for the taking.

The RJD chief couldn’t make much headway with his proposal, but Nitish Kumar’s minister Rajiv Ranjan ‘Lalan’ Singh, who overheard what was said at the reception, stepped aside and rang up his boss rightaway to convey it.

Bihar’s Chief Minister knew all along that steering the government in Patna, where he had to concede at least eight key portfolios to the numerically stronger RJD—and in effect to Lalu’s sons Tejashwi and Tej Pratap Yadav—was like walking on thin ice. “It was a marriage of political expediency. Nitish, who snapped ties with the BJP ahead of the 2014 General Election and suffered badly, saw aligning with Lalu as his last resort and only hope left,” says a bureaucrat close to the Chief Minister. Back then, Nitish Kumar had come under attack from the BJP for deserting a 17-year alliance and joining hands with his sworn enemy, Lalu Prasad, who had been a fellow traveller in their Janata Party days of the 1970s. For a larger part of his political career, Nitish had earned praise for fighting tooth and nail Lalu’s ‘jungle raj’, the RJD leader’s 15-year period of rule in which he himself was first Chief Minister followed by his wife Rabri Devi after he had to step down in 1995 on allegations of his involvement in a multi-crore fodder scam. It was Nitish Kumar who ended that ‘jungle raj’ in 2005.

Lalan Singh’s call only spelt out the writing on the wall, reveals an aide of Nitish Kumar who also holds administrative responsibilities in the Bihar government as well as JD(U). Trouble had begun within days of the grand alliance government’s formation and the nomination of Tejashwi as Deputy Chief Minister of the state. Lalu Prasad’s family had sought a larger share of power than earlier expected, emboldened by the larger number of seats that RJD won—80 in contrast with JD(U)’s 71—in Bihar’s 243-member Assembly. Tejashwi, the RJD chief’s younger son, holds plum portfolios: PWD, Road and Construction and Backward, Extremely Backward Welfare. Tej Pratap, the elder son, has health, minor irrigation and environment and forest. “Early on, the propensity of these young dynasts to misuse power for personal gains was clear,” says the aide of Nitish Kumar, emphasising that his leader was distraught “at the hint of avarice that was eating up the system” as soon as celebrations of the 2015 victory over the BJP wound down. For a leader who had prided himself in good governance and transparency, as opposed to the chaotic years of Lalu Prasad, this meant not being able to sleep easy, says the aide.

At least three politicians from the JD(U) and one from RJD admit that their parties are strange bedfellows, even though their leaders cut their teeth in the rough and tumble of Bihar politics at the height of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement of the 1970s. Fighting for social justice and challenging the entrenched political power of upper castes was one thing, but rubbing along well once they found divergent constituencies to cultivate was difficult, and they parted ways. In 1994, Nitish Kumar quit the Janata Dal, which had earlier led the National Front Government of the late-1980s (and would lead the United Front Government in the mid-1990s), and along with veteran socialist leader George Fernandes formed the Samata Party; this entity merged with the Sharad Yadav-led JD(U) in 2003 and became a member of the BJP- led NDA. Explains a former bureaucrat who has closely watched Bihar politics: “Lalu and Nitish may have had a common starting point, both being OBC leaders, but then the nature of OBC politics— which is also called ‘post-Mandal politics’—would result in a major churning.” Nitish Kumar felt increasingly sidelined in Bihar’s Janata Dal where Yadavs enjoyed tremendous clout, overshadowing the aspirations of other OBCs such as the Koeris and Kurmis (a community to which Nitish belongs). Though Kurmis did enjoy some benefits of Mandalisation, non-Paswan Scheduled Castes and various other OBCs felt left out as similarly placed castes won political empowerment. In the years that followed, it was such groups with a long-standing grouse that Nitish Kumar would attract to his party fold. Says another JD(U) leader, “There were deep fissures within backward communities and among Dalits. Nitish tried to cash in on this, besides launching a no-holds-barred attack on the tainted government of Lalu.”

In 2015, Nitish Kumar was called an opportunist for allying himself with a leader he had relentlessly fought for more than 20 years. Both he and Lalu Prasad had hoped their relationship would turn a new leaf, but then old habits die hard. The RJD chief and his men were back to what they had earned notoriety for, and in the process his sons got entangled in corruption scandals—to the Chief Minister’s anguish over his legacy.

On May 27th, one day after Nitish Kumar skipped a luncheon meeting organised by Sonia Gandhi, he met the Prime Minister at a lunch hosted by the latter

NOTWITHSTANDING LALU PRASAD’S apparent readiness to cut a secret deal, his sons had no respite from the authorities. Within weeks of his calling upon influential BJP leaders, various raids were carried out on the premises of his family. The Income Tax Department seized the properties of Lalu Prasad, daughter Misa Bharti, son-in-law Shailesh Kumar and son Tejashwi. The department also charged all of them under the Benami Transactions Act. They face legal charges in connection with a probe of benami (false identity) transactions worth Rs 1,000 crore. They have reportedly acquired land in various parts of the country, including in the national capital. According to various reports that have surfaced since, the BJP also asked the Election Commission to lodge a criminal case against Tej Pratap and asked the Central body to disqualify him as a legislator for not fully declaring his assets in a poll affidavit filed for the 2015 state polls.

A senior tax official discloses that the land deals in question were done in such a cavalier manner that it was easy for officials to get hold of ‘incriminating’ documents at the click of a mouse. Says another bureaucrat based in Patna, “Anyone familiar with the fodder scam knows the modus operandi of Lalu and his men. They are brazen and for all to see. They leave traces of corruption and have no sense of foreboding. Simply put, they are extremely foolish.” The Rs 945-crore scam of the 1990s involved the embezzlement of funds for a prolonged period with fake receipts of purchases and expenses, especially in Bihar’s animal husbandry department. Vast sums were withdrawn from the state treasury using falsified bills that were easy for any investigation agency to detect. This time round, the scanner is focused on land, especially plots owned by the Railways of which Lalu Prasad was a minister. The method, probe agencies reveal, involved getting party men like Prem Chand Gupta, a businessman, to gift properties to the Lalu Prasad family. The BJP, meanwhile, has alleged that the family has acquired more than 125 properties in the past 12 years. Investigators are looking into the case of accumulation of land by the family that is worth millions through seven shell companies in Patna, Kolkata, Delhi, and Aurangabad. The pattern detected points to the creation of shell companies and acceptance by the family of prime land and farmhouses as gifts.

RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh contends that the raids are part a conspiracy aimed at destroying anyone who is a threat to the BJP. However, another RJD leader, who also harped on that theme, says that “since Nitish is worried about perceptions of his image and of the government, he will have a tough time”. He refused to elaborate. For his part, the JD(U) leader has ruled out a probe into BJP’s allegations of land deals by his RJD partner’s family on the argument that it’s the Centre’s domain.

Bhupendra Yadav, general secretary of the BJP, has demanded an answer to why Bihar’s Chief Minister has not asked his deputy to resign until the probe was over. Several Patna-based JD(U) functionaries are of the view that Nitish Kumar should ideally ask Tejashwi to quit the post. Says the JD(U) leader’s aide, “It all depends on how things progress. It is not unlikely that the Chief Minister would ask the Deputy Chief Minister to step down. But as of now, there is no clarity about it.” He adds, “Yes, it is true that RJD and JD(U) are culturally and ethically at poles, like chalk and cheese. There are those who call the Chief Minister a ‘political opportunist’, but then he was expecting this was going to be a far better arrangement. Therefore, he is deeply disappointed.”

The views of Nitish Kumar and the Prime Minister have converged on various issues in recent months. He even backed the NDA’s Presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind

Opportunism is what Nitish Kumar was accused of by the BJP in 2014 when he left NDA over Modi’s elevation as the prime ministerial candidate of the coalition. Back then, he was hoping to secure his Muslim vote base, which he feared may desert his party if he backed Modi as the NDA campaign spearhead. There were a lot of ego issues at play, say observers. In 2009, the Chief Minister had refused to invite Modi to campaign in Bihar. Wary of a Muslim backlash, he also didn’t have photos of LK Advani on party posters. Relations between him and Modi had soured after an NDA rally in Ludhiana on May 10th, 2009, when the BJP leader walked up to him on stage, clasped his hand and raised it for the crowd. The JD(U) leader was visibly upset on his chopper ride back to Patna, according to reports at the time. After the 2014 polls, their ties worsened, but by then Modi had become the country’s top politician, securing an absolute majority for his party and becoming the first Prime Minister with this achievement to his credit since Rajiv Gandhi in 1984.

“Now, certainly there is a warming of relations between the two. Or let me re-phrase myself: the bitterness of the past is no longer there, for sure,” notes the aide who is also widely regarded as Nitish’s conscience keeper.

THERE IS MUCH in the past to bury. The two leaders had engaged in such a bitter slugfest in the run-up to the state elections of 2015 that it seemed like a personal battle of sorts. As early as 2012, Nitish Kumar had said that the coalition should have a ‘secular’ leader. In an interview to The Economic Times, he had dropped hints that he wouldn’t back Modi as Prime Minister. “In a multi-religious and multi-lingual country like ours, the leader should not have rough edges in his personality,” he had said. In the Bihar polls, the ferocity of their mutual attacks was such that observers said electioneering had touched a new low even by Indian standards. At his July 25th Muzaffarpur rally during the campaign, Modi had said that there was “some problem with Nitish Kumar’s DNA”, an ostensible reference to the Chief Minister’s shifting political allegiances. Nitish Kumar hit back saying the remark was an insult to the people of Bihar. “But then, the humiliation at the hands of the RJD and the Lalu family seems to have forced Nitish to rethink. Besides, Modi has notched [himself] up in the political scheme of things. He has an unassailable lead. And it looks like he has no competition whatsoever,” says a senior Patna-based bureaucrat who is hopeful that the JD(U) leader will now form a “a pact of sorts” with the BJP.

Nitish Kumar has reason enough for exasperation. He has been kept on tenterhooks by the RJD ever since the grand alliance assumed power, with even Rabri Devi doling out advice on governance to the veteran politician by saying it was time for young blood to take over the reins of Bihar. It was Tejashwi’s subsequent statement, “Chacha hi mukhyamantri bana rahega (Nitish uncle will remain Chief Minister)”, that was meant to serve as reassurance to the JD(U). But then RJD leaders kept making preposterous statements on the state’s governance, embarrassing the Chief Minister further. Importantly, Nitish has no plans to have a family heir succeed him in politics, and he doesn’t want his legacy to be “besmirched with that of the Prasad family” in the words of his aide.

“Clearly, ties with the BJP were far smoother. Never did any BJP leader ever question Nitish’s leadership or bureaucrat-oriented style of functioning all through the 17 years they were together,” admits a JD(U) functionary. JD(U) leaders neither confirm nor rule out a major realignment of forces on the cards. The views of Nitish Kumar and the Prime Minister have converged on various issues in recent months. Last November, the Chief Minister had praised Modi’s demonetisation plan. Unlike the rest of the opposition and a section within the NDA that opposed the move, Nitish Kumar said that the currency clampdown would help recover unaccounted-for wealth. Despite incurring the wrath of the opposition, he recently backed the NDA’s Presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, who was the Governor of Bihar, and also congratulated the NDA on the Centre’s shift to the Goods and Services Tax regime, which is aimed at eliminating a cascade of multiple taxes. The Chief Minister also hit out at the Congress, stating that it had failed to provide leadership to anti-BJP parties. A JD(U) insider says that Nitish and Modi hit it off well at a function held in January to commemorate the 350th birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh. Both leaders praised each other: while Nitish said prohibition in Gujarat had inspired him to effect a similar policy in Bihar, Modi lauded the Chief Minister for taking such a courageous step. While such public display of warmth left the opposition seething in anger, Nitish was unperturbed. A seasoned politician, he has known all along that there are no permanent foes in politics.

Signs of a patch-up were also evident in the wake of raids on the Yadav family premises. On May 27th, a day after the Bihar Chief Minister skipped a luncheon meeting organised by Sonia Gandhi for opposition leaders (which he deputed Sharad Yadav to attend), he met the Prime Minister at a lunch hosted by the latter for his Mauritian counterpart Pravind Jugnauth. While TV channels speculated on a big political shift in the works, a few observers were of the view that Nitish Kumar should stop being ambiguous about where he stood.

Expectedly, what followed were howls of protest from the Congress, which accused Nitish Kumar of ruining opposition unity. Congress General Secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad charged him with “ideological and political opportunism”. Fumes a JD(U) leader: “These kind of remarks are unacceptable. What would be the reaction if similar charges were made by us against either Sonia or Rahul [Gandhi]?” JD(U) leaders are of the view that the Congress, which after being reduced to its lowest parliamentary tally in history has gained disproportionately from Bihar’s grand alliance, is being ungrateful. Nitish Kumar’s concerns are valid, they hold: he had lashed out at the Congress for its inability to craft a viable political agenda against the BJP in the face of farmer distress and job losses. One of his associates said, “CP Joshi (Congress leader in charge of Bihar) himself has stated that the grand alliance is for Bihar alone. Have we ever been consulted outside of the state? What we do at the national level is none of their business. The Congress has failed to forge a national consensus for opposition parties.”

The Congress’ dilemma stems from its overdependence on political lightweights such as JD(U) General Secretary KC Tyagi and others as links with Bihar’s Chief Minister. “It is very clear that none of these people are taken seriously by Nitish. Besides, other opposition leaders such as CPM’s Sitaram Yechury also interact with them and not someone out of Patna or with Nitish himself,” claims a loyalist of Nitish Kumar. Anti-Congress outbursts are a signal that the JD(U) isn’t ready to keep all its eggs in one basket, especially when he is keen to distance himself from a recalcitrant ally back home. He was already dismayed, according to people close to him, that his earlier efforts to forge a grander alliance of former socialist party leaders didn’t pay off, thanks particularly to the warring Yadav grandees of Indian politics.

While most JD(U) leaders remain tight-lipped about their party’s relationship with the RJD, some of them openly say that Lalu Prasad’s party is sinking because of the trouble they have got themselves into. “From having tried to finish off Nitish, look who is now caught in an impossible mess,” says a JD(U) leader.

Nitish Kumar’s has been the tale of a survivor in the shifting sands of Bihar politics. To him, there are no substitutes for positive public perceptions and a do-gooder image. He understands the permanence of his interests and isn’t anxious about accusations of political opportunism. The Bihar Chief Minister is also worried about news emanating from the grassroots where his support base differs from that of the RJD, which had reportedly tried some years ago to brand him an ‘anti-Dalit’ leader and drive a wedge between him and his one-time lieutenant and former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi. Says a confidant of his, “Now we know what a shaky alliance actually means. For Nitish, Lalan Singh’s call that night only confirmed his worst fears.”

That is perhaps a portent of a big shake-up in politics. The most potent anti-Modi alliance yet, one that brought a redoubtable BJP to its knees in Bihar thanks to clever caste manipulation and a sharp-witted campaign, could also be the most short-lived one in Indian political history.

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