2017, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

I, PROMISCUOUS Power and the Improbable Amorality of Nitish Kumar

My take on Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s turncoat vault back into the lap of the BJP

Nitish Kumar on top of the Taxila ruins in Pakistan in 2012. Photo by Sankarshan Thakur.

His first chosen partner was, believe you me, the CPI(ML). His current chosen partner is a BJP as approximate to the RSS as it can get. Between them, Nitish Kumar has run the entire political spectrum, picking this one, ditching that one, in the pursuit and possession of power – from the provincial rogue called the Bihar People’s Party to national players like the Congress and the Left, each seduced at one time or another to afford him his embrace of the chair.

Nitish’s record of serial dalliance and ditchery springs from good reason, though. For, if power has been the central theme of Nitish’s career, the inability to secure it on his own is its central truth. Astounding as it may sound, the man who is in his third successive term as chief minister and who for a good while fancied himself as prime minister in waiting, has never won his home state singly. At his best he never had enough to propel him anywhere close to office; 17 per cent, never more. He needed booster feeds, he always needed an ally. Not a fanciful token as the CPI(ML) in 1995 – that effort fetched him the princely Assembly tally of seven of 324 seats in pre-Jharkhand Bihar – but a significant, bankable one.

He found not one but two.

Both would be handed good reason, at different junctures, to believe our chosen headline sits aptly on the man. For he has, at different junctures, found reason to kiss, then kick both.

It’s fair to reckon he’s not done with them yet; nor they with him. The guillotine-drop on Lalu Prasad mid-week and the immediate garlanding of Narendra Modi is by no means the last that’s been heard of Nitish Kumar in their annals. Not too far ago in the past, it was Modi under Nitish’s guillotine-drop, and Lalu the one getting the garland. There are scores here that await settlement.

The call of conscience is never a poor thing to possess; but it serves infinitely better to possess a conscience on call. Ask Nitish Kumar. It intones to him at various times varied wisdoms and fetches him the convictions convenient to his central purpose – ” Satta prapt karoonga, by hook or by crook, lekin satta leke achchha kaam karoonga… I will take power, by hook or by crook, but having got it, will do good work.” That’s the rash promise he made to himself in his fledgling years of public life. That’s what he’s single-mindedly, and often very cynically, worked to give the truth to. Nothing can take away from Nitish Kumar the overdue governance corrections he wrought upon the bleak deficits of Lalu raj. Beginning 2005, Bihar began to witness a turnaround in its affairs that it had forsaken all hope for. But sattaclearly takes precedence, whatever it takes – fib, falsehood, cunning, craftiness, deceit, subterfuge, fraud, saam, daam, dand, bhed. His ends have always justified the means to Nitish.

Two slices from his life and times thus far probably serve to illustrate when convictions come to drop upon Nitish Kumar and how and why they fade away. They concern the two men he has dumped and picked by turns.

The first is a scene from 1992. Bihar Bhawan, New Delhi. Lalu is visiting as chief minister. Nitish, recently rendered out of a job because of the demise of the V.P. Singh government, is biding his time in Delhi, waiting for opportunities to make himself relevant. He leads a motley group of colleagues from what was then the Janata Dal to Lalu’s suite. Farmers have been agitating in central Bihar, Nitish wants their demands addressed. None of those present quite recalls how, but within minutes of their entering, the meeting explodes into a raucous exchange of expletives. Fisticuffs follow. Lalu is screaming the loudest of all. ” Nikal baahar, nikal, baahar nikal, saa..a… get out, get the hell out, you rascals!” Commotion booms around the ground floor arc of Bihar Bhawan’s VVIP corridor. Abuse is flying about. Lalu is heard summoning security: “Get hold of this lot and drag them out of here, right out of here…” Soon enough, Lalu’s visitors are thrown out, his doors bang shut. As they leave Bihar Bhawan, shaken, Nitish mutters to one of his colleagues: “Ab iss aadmi ke saath kaam karna asambhav ho gaya hai… It has now become impossible to work with this man.” Later in the day, he scripts a long and angry letter, part of which lies documented even today. It’s an unambiguous declaration of parting – “…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…”

Nitish went on to formally split away from the Janata Dal and take up arms against Lalu. He was among the original petitioners to seek probe into the fodder scam. He was the one to coin the “jungle raj” slogan. He it was who led the “Lalu hatao, Bihar bachao” campaign and he who eventually unseated Lalu in 2005.

A decade later, in the summer of 2015, he wooed Lalu into an SOS alliance against Narendra Modi. His conscience had called and told him this had to be done for the sake of the “idea of India”.

The second is an episode from the Lok Sabha campaign of 2009. Nitish is chief minister of Bihar and one of the key constituents of the NDA. L.K. Advani is leading the campaign and one of the biggest shows is to be staged at Ludhiana, courtesy the Akalis. Invitations have gone out to leaders of all constituent parties. But Nitish is reluctant to go. The reason: he does not want to share the stage with Narendra Modi, then his Gujarat counterpart. He requests his party president, Sharad Yadav, to go instead. But a couple of days before the rally, Arun Jaitley calls Nitish with a personal request from Advani. Nitish does not commit himself immediately. But Advani presses on and eventually he relents. The deal is he’ll make a short and clinical appearance, just to keep Advani’s request. He flies into Chandigarh from Patna on a chartered aircraft and takes a car to Ludhiana. He has for company Sanjay Jha, a Jaitley acolyte who has begun to liaison between the JDU and BJP and who Nitish has grown very fond of. The Akalis have planned the Ludhiana rally Punjabi-style – a big, boisterous affair with drums beating, swords ceremonially flashing, bhangra troupes flexing about. Nitish is probably too taken by the merry commotion to see the prospect he most feared hotfooting it in his direction. He has barely set foot on the crowded podium when Narendra Modi scampers down to him from the far end and holds his hand aloft for the entire crowd to see.

A cheer goes up, that must have, at the time, buzzed like an irritable fly in Nitish’s ears. Cameras pop and Nitish feels like he has been shot. It is all over in a trice. Before Nitish has recovered his wits, Modi has left him and retreated to his appointed place. When Nitish gets back into the car with Sanjay Jha, he lavishes him with a hot mouthful. He is fuming. He says: ” Isiliye yahan laaye thhe? Aap jaante thhe kya hone waala hai, provoke kiya gaya hai mujhe aur aapne mujhe phansaaya… Is this why you brought me here? You knew this was going to happen. I have been provoked and you snared me here for this.” Jha tries stuttering an explanation, if only to pacify Nitish, but Nitish is in no mood to listen. ” Sab deliberate hai, design hai, kal akhbar mein wohi photo chhapega jo uss aadmi ne mera haath pakadke zabardasti khichwaya. Iss tarah ki rajneeti ke main sakht khilaaf hoon… All of this is deliberate, part of a design. Tomorrow’s newspapers will carry the very picture which that man forcefully held my hand for. I am strongly opposed to politics of this kind…” Sanjay Jha is stunned; he hasn’t yet realised the depth of Nitish’s aversion towards Modi. When the photograph is front-paged across the dailies the next morning, Jha tells himself he may have made a mistake.

What follows soon after is a spilling out of the Nitish-Modi feud. Modi arrives in Patna in June 2010 for the party’s national executive advertising his Rs 5 crore aid to Bihar for flood relief. Nitish is furious beyond measure. ” Yeh kaisi sabhyata hai, daan dekar koi usko vigyapit karta hai? Yeh Bihar ka apmaan hai… What kind of culture is this, does a donor advertise his donation? This is an insult to Bihar.” He makes a public point of scrapping his dinner invitation to the arrived BJP brass. He later makes peace with the party, but his war with Modi simmers on. In June 2013, as Modi’s candidacy for prime ministership becomes imminent, he junks the BJP. ” Rajneeti mein kuchh cheezen satta aur sarkar se upar hoti hain… There are some things in politics that are above power and government,” he proclaims, and says of Modi: “Iss insaan ka naam sunkey desh ke kadodon alp sankhyakon mein bhay or sandeh ka mahaul ban jata hai. Iss aadmi ke saath samjhauta nahin ho sakta… This man’s name invokes fear and suspicion in the millions of minorities of this country. There can be no compromise with this man.”

Four years later, or earlier this week, Nitish dissolved his reservations over Modi and thanked him profusely for agreeing to support him as partner in power. His conscience had called, he said, and told him he could not go on working with Lalu anymore.

What a wondrous beast of bidding a conscience on call is.

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