2013, Patna, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Ahead, a tough ride

Patna, June 16: Chief minister Nitish Kumar may well sense a new “secular” halo beginning to glow behind him, but beneath his feet he must also sense the cold discomfort of thin ice. If this is a leap of conviction, it is equally a lunge into uncertainty. Hereon, it is going to be a testing, if not also precarious, ride.

He has forsaken his two-thirds cushion and earned himself a belligerent adversary that will come blazing at him on the shoulders of Narendra Modi. He has a newly invigorated Lalu Prasad waging in from the other end. His own flock will require assuring they can hold out on their own. “We are admittedly in a new and tough situation,” a Nitish aide confessed. “But this is a challenge we had no option but to embrace, there was never any question of submitting to Narendra Modi. We must treat this like an opportunity, a rebirth.”

Nitish’s first challenge is of course to secure the trust motion on June 19, but that will probably be the easiest of the trials that lie ahead; Independents and critical absentees, if not formal support from the Congress, will see Nitish through what is set to be an acrimonious vote on the Assembly floor. Thereafter, it will be an everyday battle on multiple fronts that Nitish alone will have to wage for the dispensation he heads is, willy-nilly, a one-man show.

The JD(U), far too reliant on Nitish’s persona, is in dire need of structure and network. The drubbing in Maharajganj exposed gaping holes in the organisation; many JD(U) leaders paradropped into the campaign returned with feedback that the party “doesn’t exist” at the grassroots. “The organisation needs attention far more than ever before,” pleaded an office bearer. “We are on our own now, we have to quickly galvanise ourselves into action, the party will have to become as much a priority as the government.”

The government buffeted by perceptions of administrative slowdown and corruption, itself needs urgent toning, probably also a dose of strong medicine. The sense is growing, and palpable, that Nitish’s performance in the second term has suffered in comparison to his first innings.

Some key advisers are known to have told the chief minister governance needs more focused attention. The pressure will mount now that Nitish is on his own and surrounded by multiple political adversaries. “It’s all down to him alone now,” said a senior JD(U) leader, on the sidelines of the day’s big announcement. “He is a deeply image-conscious man and he has a reputation to keep. You may well see a changed Nitish Kumar in the days to come, politically aggressive, intent on governance.”

By far the most daunting task, though, will be to stitch up a socio-political coalition strong enough to outflank both the BJP and Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The jettisoning of the BJP has created a gaping hole on Nitish’s flanks. That will not be taken care of by reconfiguring the caste composition of the government or the party alone. It will require convincing a highly politicised, and mostly disparate, electorate that Nitish is still the only man capable of turning Bihar’s fortunes and delivering this government’s avowed credo: progress with social harmony.

Translated, that means hard barnstorming of the Bihar heartland to shore up constituencies that have so far not been part of the JD(U) votebank. Even diehard supporters of the JD(U) and Nitish don’t believe, for instance, that Bihar’s 17 per cent Muslims will fall into “automatic embrace” by sheer dint of Nitish having severed ties with the BJP. “It will have to be a hard fought battle,” said a senior partyman. “Bihar is complex and politics is very competitive, especially now with the BJP in a new belligerent mood.”

It will also require, in all probability, finding new political partners, of which there are few in the field. Relations between Nitish and Lalu Prasad are too acerbic at the moment to even credibly contemplate an alliance, although it isn’t unforeseeable that the two join hands to fight off Narendra Modi.

Speculation has also drifted in the direction of a tie-up with the Congress, but such a prospect is riddled with imponderables. Should Nitish lean towards a “third front” or “federal front” formation with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress and Navin Patnaik’s BJD, the Congress will remain hands off. On the other hand, it will also be courted hard by Lalu Prasad.

Realignments will happen in Bihar following today’s rupture between the JD(U) and the NDA, but they will take time to firm up and will depend on twists and turns of politics well-nigh impossible to predict at the moment. What’s well certain is that in choosing the “honourable option” of unbending exit from the NDA, Nitish Kumar has set himself on the toughest bend of his career.

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