2013, News, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

The Big Test: Old Nitish Versus New Nitish

Patna, Nov 23: This is the most challenging and adverse power anniversary Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has arrived at in his eight years at the helm.

The deficits of a long incumbency are coming into play. The many aspirations he kindled on the derelictions of Laloo-raj are seeking fulfillment. He no longer enjoys the luxury of shining in comparison to Laloo Yadav; he is measured against his own manifesto of hope. Most of all, he must now square up to the political consequences of the ideological gamble he took in cutting off the BJP and deciding to sail solo. Nitish Kumar is on choppy waters infested with adversaries sharking in; his test will be how he negotiates them.

As one among his political colleagues told The Telegraph, “We are under attack from several sides, not one, and our work will have to do the job of fighting them off. This government has been known by governance and the social harmony it has maintained, this is the time to demonstrate we are still the best at it.”

Recent months have not offered the best illustration of that: two sets of blasts, one at Bodh Gaya and the other at Narendra Modi’s first Bihar outing since the split; the poisoning, and consequent deaths, of 23 schoolchildren fed their mid-day meal; six killed when police opened fire on an agitated mob in Bagaha; an equal number taken out in a Maoist strike near Aurangabad; an unabated slew of dacoities and bank robberies across the state.

Could it be merely coincidence all of this has transpired since the JDU and the BJP parted ways mid-June? But one after the other, Bihar was struck by reverses that hobbled its reputation as the nation’s fastest improving state. Out of government, the BJP suddenly became Nitish’s most virulent critic and began to mock his claims to good governance. “Corruption is rampant, people are angry, the bureaucracy has become all-powerful, false claims are being made on development, we shall expose all of this,” senior Bihar BJP leader Ravi Shankar Prasad had said following the severing of ties.

The chief Opposition in Bihar now, the BJP has made it a daily habit of darting allegations a government it was part of till very recently. “The good work in government was done by the BJP, not the JDU,” says Rajiv Pratap Rudy, another senior BJP leader from the state, “And it is our duty and mission to bring that truth to public attention.”

Life for the Nitish government hasn’t been easy since it jettisoned the BJP, and that is not merely to do with losing the comfort of a two-thirds majority in the Assembly.
It has also to do with losing the sympathy of a vocal and opinion-making section — Bihar’s upper castes, who are less than 15 percent but claim a much larger share of influence on the socio-political discourse. The decibel of the anti-Nitish chatter has been partly spurred by their participation and encouragement.

The Nitish establishment does not tire of hinting of a “counter-consolidation” against the upper castes and against the arrival of Narendra Modi on the Bihar stage. “Their people are vocal, but there is a silent majority watching,” one of them said, “They will be bothered about preserving their own interests, which they know Nitish can best protect, Bihar is not a one way game.”

Quite right. And the problem with the ruling party driving too much solace from “counter-consolidation” may be just that: Bihar is not a one way game, it splits at least three ways in the current state of play — there is Nitish, there is the BJP, and there is also Laloo Yadav, still the master of a substantial chunk of the vote.

All evidence since he was convicted in the fodder scandal and sent to jail would suggest that his core constituents — Bihar’s 15-odd percent Yadavs — remain rallied behind him. Wife, former chief minister and unanointed arbiter of day to day affairs of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Rabri Devi, has been drawing good crowds on her recent outings. Despite rife speculation to the contrary, the RJD has held together in Laloo’s physical absence from the scene. It remains moot if Bihar’s minorities — 16 or so percent — have decided to reward Nitish for confronting Narendra Modi and switch loyalties from Laloo to him. It’s a hope Nitish’s got-it-alone gambit relied heavily on but there has been no occasion yet to demonstrate that hope is also the ground reality.

The Nitish Kumar of November 2013 is a different from the Nitish Kumar of May 2013: he has two adversaries to battle and, so far, no allies to count on. Talk of an alliance with the Congress, emaciated in Bihar but a potential force-multiplier on the minority vote, has remained incipient. Should the Congress pitch its lot with Lalu, as many Congressmen from the state are lobbying the high command to do, the climb will turn steeper for Nitish.

It is probably for good reason that on the eve of his eighth anniversary in power Nitish is pushing harder on governance gains — improved power generation and supply, the resumed fast tracking of road and bridge building, more energetic wooing of investment, keener watch on law and order. “Governance is our core competence,” the Nitish adviser iterated, “And it is essentially there that we will have to demonstrate that we outshine the competition.”

But Bihar’s politics, as Nitish knows better than most, turns most tellingly on the hard axis of caste, and somewhere the winner will have to divine that calculus right. Is there a clue here why Nitish Kumar has yet to fill the many posts in his cabinet left vacant  by ousted BJP members?

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