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Five wrongs don't make a right

By Aditi Phadnis
June 08, 2015 11:12 IST
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Nitish Kumar is on the brink of taking another wrong turn. It is hard to fathom why he would tie up with the Congress, which has little political capital left in Bihar. Aditi Phadnis reports.

What happens when you take a wrong turn? Ask Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who will be fighting for political survival come October-November when the state assembly elections are likely to be held.

Kumar was known as the foremost reformer chief minister who brought governance back to Bihar.

He did this by reasserting the primacy of the state and eliminating parallel centres of power and authority, like extortionists and private armies.

He might not have succeeded but people still remember that he tried. He did old-fashioned things that chief ministers are supposed to do -- like building roads, providing schools and enabling power to reach villages.

In this, Kumar and his current bete noire Narendra Modi are similar. In Gujarat, Modi threw out intermediaries and thieves, micromanaged and took responsibility.

In Bihar, for a while, Kumar too made people forget that a man called Lalu had ever ruled over them. He melded politics and governance to his best advantage, by creating caste coalitions and a governance platform that would support these coalitions.

The extreme backward classes did not grudge him a bureaucracy dominated by the upper caste because he made it work in their interest.

The upper castes didn't particularly like him but were forced to stay with him because they were spared the Lalu effect.

Besides, it was the Nitish Kumar administration that asked for a report on land reform and then put it away in cold storage for fear of stoking a social conflict of a serious nature.

Lalu Prasad, on the other hand, never let go of an opportunity to socially polarise, using acrimony to consolidate his social base.

Kumar carefully crafted a rainbow social coalition of upper caste, most backward castes and Mahadalits and successfully upstaged Lalu. He was even successful in partially roping in low caste or Pasmanda Muslims, who turned away from Lalu and forgave Kumar for being in coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party because he became one of the first to acknowledge their existence.

Which is when Nitish Kumar took the first wrong turn.

This could be an exercise in determinism but consider what might have happened if L K Advani or Sushma Swaraj had become the prime minister of India and not Narendra Modi.

Kumar had some inkling that Modi was gaining in popularity but he put his money on a non-Modi prime ministerial candidate emerging from the BJP.

This was based on his understanding of the equations within the Sangh -- it was the Parivar's worst-kept secret at the time that Modi was a tad too independent-minded for their taste and that they would prefer someone who was more conforming.

Where Kumar erred was in misreading the signals from the ground.

The average BJP supporter did not want Advani -- he wanted Modi and he repeatedly warned the Sangh that ignoring this Hokusai wave could sweep away everything that stood in its way.

So, the Sangh had no choice but to accept Modi, and look as if it liked him. Kumar thought that in a 180-210 Lok Sabha seat scenario, the BJP would beg him for its support and he would be top dog.

We know that didn't happen.

So, what was the second mistake? With few options, Kumar embarked on caste consolidation -- he tied up with Lalu Prasad and then tried to enlarge the Janata Parivar by bringing in Mulayam Singh Yadav as a counterpoise to Lalu.

Voters in Bihar were unimpressed. Someone who was as committed as Kumar to dismantling the Lalu legacy was now tying up with Lalu? What next? An alliance with the Ranvir Sena and the Maoists? Or Mohammad Shahabuddin, the strongman of Siwan?

But what appeared to be his biggest mistake was more emotional than strategic.

In a season of electoral slide, he chose Jitan Ram Manjhi as his successor in the mistaken belief that what O Panneerselvam had been to Jayalalithaa, Manjhi would be to Kumar.

Momentarily, he allowed himself to forget the political history of the Hindi heartland where loyalties are often sheathed daggers.

Manjhi was made chief minister. He did everything that Nitish Kumar was opposed to -- corruption, nepotism.

At any other time, Kumar's decision to dislodge him might have been cheered. But Manjhi's Dalit background insulated him from charges of corruption.

On the other hand, Nitish Kumar's disapproval of Manjhi was seen as just a stratagem to get back into 1, Anne Marg. Having installed him, the decision to abruptly dethrone Manjhi was the fourth mistake.

Will tying up with the Congress be Kumar's fifth? Frankly, it is really hard to understand why Kumar is doing it.

Congress has little political capital left in Bihar.

On top of that is the heavy burden of hefting the well-meaning but clueless Rahul Gandhi.

Despite losing everything, the Congress is not without political ambition and there is no evidence that its arrogance has been tempered by defeat.

Kumar is on the brink of taking another wrong turn.

A supposedly top member of the Modi campaign team has been lured away from that camp by the Janata Dal (United) leadership to plot its assembly election strategy.

Kumar's lieutenants are confident that social media will win the election for them.

It might have -- had it not been for an irksome reality: the living, breathing people of Bihar.

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Aditi Phadnis
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