Nitish Kumar: In Good Company

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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Nitish Kumar retains power in the new NDA government in Patna. The blow to Congress and opposition unity is irreversible

THE DENOUEMENT of Bihar’s Grand Alliance coming apart was dramatic, but the political players shaping events clearly had their acts well coordinated. On the evening of July 26th, by the time Nitish Kumar tendered his resignation as Chief Minister, the state’s Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi—also Governor of West Bengal—was ready at the Raj Bhavan in Patna to handle the situation. What had just occurred could put in the shade many of the power shifts that an ancient city with a long history of palace intrigues had ever seen. The latest shake-up is not just a split between JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar and the RJD’s Lalu Prasad, it represents the end of an opposition dream called the Mahagathbandhan, which was conceived over two years ago as a model alliance for a national effort to stymie the BJP’s otherwise relentless rise.

The beneficiary is India’s ruling party. As a JD(U) leader close to the matter discloses, though Governor Tripathi usually spends most of his time in Kolkata, he was stationed in Patna for the JD(U)’s return to the NDA fold, with every move ‘choreographed’ at the ‘very top levels’ in New Delhi, all of it in preparation for the General Election of 2019. “The plot was cleverly managed and went off without a hitch,” says a BJP leader, pointing out that nothing was left to chance. Nitish announced his decision to quit within a day of Lalu Prasad’s ruling out his son Tejashwi’s exit as Deputy Chief Minister from the state government over corruption charges. On cue, the BJP’s Parliamentary Board met soon after and offered the party’s support to the JD(U), which had been a BJP partner for 17 years until Nitish Kumar snapped ties in 2013 over the issue of Modi being made the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 General Election. “I can tell you that the Bihar BJP just had to wait for instructions from Delhi. Everything was remote-controlled from the top,” says the BJP leader. The party’s top leadership had wanted Nitish Kumar’s switchover to be done with swift precision. By the midnight of July 26th, the JD(U) leader had already met Tripathi and staked his claim to form a new BJP-backed government, armed with a fresh letter of support, names of key ministers ready to be sworn in the next day, and a date by which he could win a trial of strength in the Assembly.

All of it happened in a span of less than six hours. With Nitish Kumar staying on as Chief Minister, the BJP’s Sushil Kumar Modi has been named Deputy Chief Minister, with various cabinet ministers to be sworn in over the next few days.

The BJP is back in control of a state that accounts for 40 members of the Lok Sabha. The big loser in the turn of events is Lalu Prasad, a man who had once presided over the state and was looked up to as a messiah of the marginalised. Deposed from all authority, he was accused of harming the Grand Alliance government by his attempts to shield his sons and daughter from serious graft charges. When the Chief Minister announced his decision of July 26th, Lalu was on his way to Ranchi in Jharkhand by road to attend to a court hearing the next day of the many corruption cases against him. He cut a sorry figure, standing in court—on the judge’s insistence—all through the proceedings, with no clout left in his home state and faced with a hostile regime at the Centre. “Looks like he is facing the sunset of his chequered career. This could be the beginning of the disintegration of his style of politics,” says an RJD leader based in Delhi.

While some pundits have heaped scorn on Nitish for ‘betraying’ secular forces to align with the BJP, Lalu’s fall was of his own making—he had ridden roughshod over an ally who insisted on clean governance. Reportedly, he had even approached a few BJP leaders in Delhi with a brazen proposal of a deal, promising to ‘finish off’ Nitish Kumar in return for corruption cases against his kin being dropped (See: ‘Breaking FreeOpen , July 17th, 2017). The Chief Minister’s reputation as an anti-corruption crusader, however, has held him in good stead. Some political analysts of a liberal persuasion have also acknowledged his sway over the electorate. Historian Ramachandra Guha, for example, recently suggested that Nitish Kumar be projected as the leader of a united opposition by the Congress-led UPA. Bihar’s Chief Minister had also earned praise from the likes of Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and his followers for his style of governance and development model in the state.

That Nitish Kumar has left the opposition to fend for itself on the issue of corruption speaks volumes about the inability of anti-BJP parties to pose as an alternative to the NDA, come 2019. In particular, it points to a worsening crisis within the country’s main opposition party, which looks weaker and weaker by the day.

That Nitish Kumar has left the opposition to fend for itself on the issue of corruption speaks volumes about the inability of anti-BJP parties to pose as an alternative to the NDA, come 2019. In particular, it points to a worsening crisis within the country’s main opposition party

Pranab Mukherjee, ‘Pranab da’ to most in the ailing Congress party, had once taught Political Science at Vidyanagar College in South 24 Parganas district of Bengal, his home state, and his grasp of the intricacies of pragmatic politics helped bail the Congress out of a crisis many times before he became the 13th President of India in 2012. It’s a telling sign of the desperation among Congressmen that many among its old guard are now publicly pleading for political ‘guidance’ from Mukherjee. Writing an op-ed piece for a news daily, Mani Shankar Aiyar, once an outspoken aide of Rajiv Gandhi later left in the cold by Rahul Gandhi’s scheme of things, has expressed concern over the party’s future and asked for exactly that: ‘...freed of his Constitutional constraints, a retired Pranab da could well become the Congress party’s principal counsellor and help guide it back from its present nadir closer to the zenith.’

The leadership void in the Congress, especially in the last three years during which the gap between Modi’s stature and Rahul Gandhi’s has widened, requires no specific mention. His failure to put together a saleable narrative of opposition politics in the country is obvious in the despair within his party. At a time that it should be gearing up to go to the electorate with a clear vision and cogent promise, the Congress finds itself at yet another low. There is thus irony in Aiyar’s words as he welcomes the change at Rashtrapati Bhavan. ‘It is probably the Indian National Congress that is the biggest gainer from this presidential election... the party would do well to listen to his advice (were he to give it) because his has been the wisest voice in the party for decades. We were deprived of it at a time when we were sorely in need of it because the minute he became president his sense of duty detached him from any hint of partisan politics.’ This would be a ‘morale booster’, Aiyar says, that his party urgently needs.

That’s an understatement, even if it is significant that it comes only weeks before Rahul Gandhi will likely be elevated to the post of Congress president on the basis of an inner-party electoral process outlined to the Election Commission. Just recently, Gandhi, unwilling to learn lessons from elections in states like Goa—where the party won the most seats but still snatched defeat from the jaws of victory—virtually forced Shankersinh Vaghela out of the Congress in poll-bound Gujarat, despite the latter being its best bet to get back into the electoral reckoning after decades of BJP dominance.

Rahul Gandhi’s inept leadership also allowed the BJP under Modi to make crucial gains in the Uttar Pradesh polls earlier this year. Not only did the Congress’ confused attack on demonetisation fail to find its mark among voters, the party’s electoral team proved itself clueless about strategy. Prashant Kishor, a strategist hastily taken aboard from the BJP, was dumped early on in the UP campaign, but Gandhi’s own extensive tours of the state speaking about farm distress achieved nothing. His Khaat Pe Charcha, an idea taken from Modi’s Chai Pe Charcha meetings with common people, proved to be a political self-goal. In terms of optics, it turned into an embarrassment at one location where villagers walked away with the cots even before the leader’s public address was over. Soon after, the Congress unceremoniously dumped Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate for the state, jettisoned its plans to go it alone, did a swift U-turn on its ‘UP behaal’ slogan, and then tied up with the very party it was aimed at, the then-ruling Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav. It was a script that had no hope at the hustings. And so it turned out, with the BJP sweeping the polls.

The UP verdict was only one among many results that point to a dismal future for India’s oldest party. Internal anxieties have risen sharply ever since Sonia Gandhi signalled her decision to reduce her role in active politics so that Rahul Gandhi could assume greater responsibility. The new ‘Team Rahul’ of young men and women he has enlisted to replace the party’s old hands (and troubleshooters), however, has made many of its members even more nervous and distrustful of him. Says a party leader from Rajasthan on condition of anonymity: “This core group that formed Team Rahul was never named, [but was defined in party perception] by the access it controlled to the Congress vice-president and the regulation of issues to be raised before him. Sachin Pilot, son of the late Rajesh Pilot, has remained a close confidant as far as I know. The complete lack of transparency and open access made it that much more difficult to demand accountability for bad decisions, or no decisions.”

Among the old guard who have been sidelined are Ahmed Patel, a key aide of Rajiv Gandhi and then Sonia Gandhi, and Ashok Gehlot, who is said to be on bad terms with Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan and has been placed in charge of Gujarat. Digvijaya Singh was forced to quit his post as Goa’s general secretary in-charge after the post-poll debacle there. Former Home and Finance Minister P Chidambaram has had an electoral reversal in his home state of Tamil Nadu, where the BJP is trying to make an electoral debut (perhaps in alliance with a regional party). The Congress is now more or less history in the state while Chidambaram and his son Karti are under an investigative scanner in the INX Media case.

In Parliament and outside it, Rahul Gandhi was chastised for his lackadaisical attitude by NCP chief Sharad Pawar recently, after Sonia Gandhi approached him to take the initiative of getting opposition parties together to decide on a consensus presidential candidate. Then there is also the issue of Rahul Gandhi’s untimely holidays, which have meant that his party has swung from confidence to diffidence to depression on some issue or the other, depending on whether he is around or not. The decision to plump for Meira Kumar as the combined opposition presidential nominee— taken only after much humming and hawing on the part of the Congress while Rahul Gandhi was on vacation in Italy—was so late that much damage had already been wreaked. The idea of joint force to take on the BJP in 2019 was the biggest casualty. The indecision meant that Nitish Kumar had broken ranks with the other 17 parties to back the NDA’s Ram Nath Kovind.

Rahul Gandhi returned to India only in time for Meira Kumar to file her nomination papers, something that led a party leader to scoff, “The Congress is a film without protagonists, an unwieldy script and abysmal box-office performance. The worst is, we are being led by an item number, and now, with Nitish Kumar jumping the fence, all exits from doom seem to be sealed.”

It was Aiyar who morosely acknowledged in an interview a while ago that there was no one in the Congress who could lead the opposition against Modi in 2019. What he left hanging, Guha has voiced more openly by rooting for Nitish Kumar. With Bihar’s Chief Minister switching sides, the blow to the anti Modi line-up has been especially grievous. The Congress’ leadership, already embroiled in cases such as that of The National Herald and perhaps a possible reopening of the Bofors probe, will also have to worry about the prospects of its allies: Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress is troubled by the Sharada scam, for example, while Mayawati of the BSP has much wealth held in her party’s name to explain. The list of Congress friends with sullied reputations is longer still. The loss of a leader known for his probity in Bihar is a setback worse than the Congress is making it out to be.