Single Man

The loud and long fight: How Nitish and Laloo fell out

Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar, seems to be down but not out, with the Lok Sabha contest in Bihar looking like a fight between Laloo Yadav and Narendra Modi. History has a way of coming full circle. For a long time, Nitish Kumar and Laloo Yadav were mates in university and Lohiatie politics. This is the story of how they fell out. This exclusive excerpt from Single Man: The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Biharfirst appeared in


By 1992, Nitish was not on talking terms with Laloo Yadav. Proof of that lies buried in a slim but significant volume of letters put together by journalist Srikant, one of the few in Patna who labour over chronicling contemporary politics. The book, ‘Bihar: Chitthiyon ki Rajneeti’, or Bihar: The Politics of Letters, contains a long though little known missive that Nitish wrote Laloo Yadav. It is dated two years before he formally parted ways, but to read it is to be convinced of the rupture between the two.

The letter bears reproduction. It speaks eloquently of how bitter relations had become. But its most vital aspect perhaps is that it is a tactile document, put down in black and white; that’s a rare thing to come upon in the exploration of public lives in Bihar; few bother with written records even of critical turns in events. Nitish thought his differences with Laloo deep and critical enough to log. ‘It is not possible to speak to you any longer,’ Nitish began, ‘because you are not, to my mind, earnest about discussing serious or important issues. Your attitude towards the party, the government and democratic institutions is such, and your current company is such, that there is no space or occasion for meaningful dialogue. Therefore I am writing you this letter . . . The Janata Dal and this government are the result of years of struggle and hard work by scores of leaders and thousands of workers; we were all part of that struggle which has put you in power . . . It was a struggle led by such big leaders as JP and Karpoori Thakur and Ramanand Tiwari . . . I stood by you rock-like in your election as leader of Opposition and as chief minister of Bihar. I have been protecting your government, working for it. But this government has belied all our expectations, it has become the playground of power cliques around you. It is clear that you are bent on showering the benefits of government appointments and contracts on people from a particular caste group [Yadavs, although Nitish does not specify this]. Such discrimination among backward communities is discouraging non-Yadav groups . . . I see that you are claiming exclusive credit for endeavours and decisions that have been collective. All of us together planned the arrest of L.K. Advani [at Samastipur, en route to Ayodhya] but we never took credit for it the way you have. Secular politics is not your preserve, secular politics is something we all stand for, but you have grabbed that mantle for yourself. This is selfish politics . . . When we worked to elect you, we had believed you would work to undo the corruption and misgovernance under the Congress rule. But none of that has happened, and you seem uninterested in anything other than perpetuating yourself in power and pandering to your coterie . . . There is widespread misuse of funds and financial indiscipline, welfare programmes are suffering as a result, governance is at a standstill . . . Genuine workers of the party are demoralized and angry and alienated because you are not prepared to listen to them. You have now turned to insulting senior colleagues, you want to keep yourself surrounded by sycophants . . . This is not what many of us expected when we helped put you in power . . .’

An early photograph of Nitish Kumar, standing in line to vote at an election in Bhaktiyarpur.

The letter was occasioned by an ugly spat at Bihar Bhawan in Delhi in the late months of 1992. Laloo was visiting as chief minister. Nitish—by then a minister no more, for the V.P. Singh government had collapsed and he had lost his job as deputy to Devi Lal in the agriculture ministry—had gone to see him with a group of Bihar leaders, carrying a wish list of things to be done. There was Shivanand Tiwari, Brishen Patel and Lallan Singh. There was also Sarju Rai of the BJP, who had been raising the issue of irrigation and power for farmers in the Nalanda and Sone regions, but he sat in another room of the guest house, waiting for Nitish and the others to return from their meeting. The farmers had been agitating peacefully for months but to no avail; Nitish wanted their demands attended to.

None of those present quite recalls how, but within minutes of their entering the chief minister’s suite, the meeting exploded into a raucous exchange of expletives and fisticuffs. Laloo screamed loudest of all, his ire mostly centred on Lallan Singh, who he motioned violently to be gone from his presence: ‘Nikal bahar, bahar nikal, saala, get out, get out, you rascal!’

Commotion boomed down the ground floor arc of Bihar Bhawan’s VVIP corridor; mothers and sisters were quickly invoked as helpless appendages to unmentionable verbs. It is not unusual in Bihar, when a fight begins to flame, for daughters too to be threatened with lascivious wrath. Abuse flew audibly. Sarju Rai came hurtling out to see what had gone wrong. He saw jostling at the VVIP door. Laloo was heard summoning his security detail, dozing somewhere beyond the corridor’s curve. ‘Pakadke phenk do bahar, le jaao ghaseet ke!’ . . . Catch hold of them and throw them out, drag them out of here! The chief minister probably only wanted Lallan Singh physically banished; Lallan can be rough of tongue and manner and quick to cause affront. He may well have said something that provoked Laloo, then or earlier. But before it came to him being physically carted away, the entire Nitish party disentangled itself from the scene and walked off. ‘Ab saath chal paana mushkil hai,’ . . . it is going to be difficult to work together now, Nitish muttered to his colleagues as they left Bihar Bhawan. He requested Sarju Rai to draft a letter that would reason the parting and which he intended making public at the soonest opportunity. Rai wrote that letter, the letter above, but it remained buried a while. Its reproduction comes enigmatically annotated by Srikant in the collection he put together: ‘Patra ka antim panna gum ho gaya hai.’ . . . the letter’s last page is lost.

Sharad Yadav, then president of the Janata Dal, got wind of the Bihar Bhawan dust-up and rushed to keep the peace. He called Laloo and asked him to apologize. Laloo said he was prepared to. He called Nitish and asked him to meet Laloo and make up. Nitish said no. Sharad scaled down his demand—at least give me the letter you are meant to have written, may I have a look? Nitish had made a few changes to the draft Sarju Rai had given him, sharpened the attack on Laloo, made the tone more uncompromising, tuned it closer to his own mood.

Nitish Kumar attending one of the first open sessions of the NDA in Bihar.

Nitish sent the letter to Sharad. It cannot be said for certain if Sharad ever raised its contents with Laloo, but nothing was heard of it thereafter. Years later, when Srikant was able to lay his hands on it, he found the last page missing. Two people close to the incident that sparked that letter—Shivanand Tiwari and Sarju Rai—independently confirmed to me that contained on that missing last page was Nitish’s unambiguous announcement of departure from Laloo’s side. Not a dare, not a threat, but a non-negotiable declaration of intent: ab aapke saath rehna vyarth hai, in paristhitiyon mein aapse alag hatkar hi rajneeti karna uchit samajhta hoon, . . . it is my considered view that it is of no use to be with you now, in such circumstances it is best that I conduct my politics removed from you, or words to that effect. Nitish had decided to break away.

It must say something about Nitish that he took another two years making good his declared resolve. And he still did not do it proactively or willingly. He had to be hounded by Laloo’s coterie and heckled by friends into taking the plunge.

Nitish can be terribly risk-averse, not always a good or helpful quality in a politician. He often retreats from political opportunity even when it is staring him in the face, he turns to reflect and can consume interminable months reflecting. Call it lack of nerve or of cheek, Nitish shrinks from acting with pluck or impudence.

To walk out of Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet in 1987, to challenge a party that had a merciless 400-plus majority in the Lok Sabha, could not have been an easy decision for V.P. Singh. And yet it was upon that move, an act of momentous political chutzpah, that he turned the drift of play and became prime minister. It was sheer audacity and opportunism that enabled him to radically alter the face of north Indian politics forever. Without his revolt, there would have been no Janata Dal, no VP as prime minister, no Mandal, no reversal of the social or power order. Nitish himself was a consequence of V.P. Singh’s daring defiance of Rajiv and the Congress; that is what handed heartland politics over to non-upper caste groups.

In the same position it’s a good bet Nitish would not have moved like the V.P. Singh of 1987, resolving to take on a prime minister with a mammoth parliamentary majority on the mere sense that he could turn the needle of suspicion in the Bofors Gun case into a weapon of electoral destruction. ‘Phoonk-phoonk ke kadam rakhte hain’ . . . he takes each step gingerly, too gingerly, is how an old and close friend described his manner. ‘He will never decide in a hurry, never. He will chew over even what he knows to be right. He will chew and chew, then regurgitate and examine, mull and chew all over again. He has a problem taking critical decisions, often he lapses into an enigmatic shell, nobody may know what’s happening in his head, he can be a terrible loner.’

For colleagues, Nitish’s long and very often solitary rumination of dilemmas can be frustrating, but that’s how Nitish is—circumspect, chary, often even a little craven, all of it probably a consequence of the early reverses in his political life; he is a wary man, often too careful, he won’t step onto ground he isn’t certain will hold. A decade later, the sundering of ties with the BJP, after tensions over Narendra Modi, came about after festering four years. Nitish was never in any dilemma over his rejection of Narendra Modi’s stewardship of the BJP—just as he never thought Laloo Yadav fit to lead Bihar—but he waited to be pushed by circumstances rather than push them. In both cases, he tore himself away stitch by stitch, so slowly it was painful to watch. He has his reasons warranting such procrastination: for him contradictions must boil to the point that decisions don’t have to be taken, they just present themselves.

While Nitish lingered in a cloud of indecision through the early 1990s, Laloo did not seem to mind. He sat on the gaddi and lorded over Bihar with no one to challenge him. Nitish was the one losing time. Laloo’s imperious indifference had left Nitish a frustrated man, yet again.

(Single Man: By Sankarshan Thakur, HarperCollins, 307 pages, Rs 599)

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