The curious case of Nitish Kumar

Jayaprakash Narayan must be turning in his proverbial grave wondering what is happening to Bihar and his beloved socialism. After the Emergency, socialism as a brand name got associated with two political figures who dominated the Bihari landscape. One was Lalu Prasad, who covered up the politics of corruption as the politics of cornucopia. The other was Nitish Kumar, who played the politics of resentment and responsibility, creating not music but the ritual of musical chairs as politics. Between the two, socialism degenerated to populism and post-Emergency hopes became a set of electoral gimmicks.

Mr. Prasad and Mr. Kumar have almost become folklore characters of Bihari politics, enacting out a Punch and Judy routine which seems unbelievable. They seemed doomed together but often built divorce as a part of a dynamic relationship. Mr. Prasad was always closer to the Congress, considering it another family party. Mr. Kumar, portrayed as single and singular, was more prone to flirt with other political possibilities. Despite their socialism, despite the populism, both loved power. It was the one aphrodisiac that kept them going. A party without power was subject to impotency. A party without power lacked patronage, and without patronage the multiplier effect of corruption wouldn’t work.

There was a difference in style however. Mr. Prasad was more preoccupied with power to help him play welfare state to his ever expanding family. Sometimes with his association with the likes of Sadhu Yadav and other criminal elements, one wondered whether there was a clear line between crime and politics. The taint of corruption has always haunted Mr. Prasad as he turned politics into an act of conspicuous corruption. What redeemed him at least to some people was his commitment to secularism and identity, which the likes of himself and Mulayam Singh Yadav wore like a halo in national politics.

Obsession with power

While Mr. Prasad’s was a blatant politics of revelry, there was something calculated, almost repressed, with Mr. Kumar. He seemed obsessed with power, narcissistic about his image, paranoid about survival. It is almost as if every move of his was tactical, even fighting corruption. Apart from Narendra Modi, one cannot think of anyone more preoccupied with power and retaining power. He wanted to be a national leader, but Mr. Prasad was more effective as a vote-catcher. There was a sense of being second, even secondary, to Mr. Kumar’s career in front of the likes of Mr. Prasad and Mr. Modi. They were more colourful personalities. His dreams of governance were no match for Mr. Modi’s. His popularity lagged behind Mr. Prasad’s. Psychologically all this must have rankled. In fact his curriculum vitae shows that this opportunistic politician was a master at playing the shifting sounds of politics. Mr. Prasad got it wrong when he complained that Mr. Kumar has slapped the nation. Rather than being “anti-national”, he was loyal to himself and that seems the ultimate patriotism of electoral politics today.

His career of twist and turns is amazing. He appeared as a JP-ite socialist, an uneasy twin to Mr. Prasad, in the mid-1980s and switched towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a decade later. During the Vajpayee regime he was a cabinet minister, content to be second or even third fiddle. In 2005, he became the Chief Minister of Bihar with the BJP’s support. In 2013 he broke his alliance with the BJP. In 2017 he has abandoned his dreams of a Mahagathbandhan and done another Ghar Wapsi, back to the BJP fold.

What opposition?

One thing is clear in the ensuing war of words. The old idea of opposition has been blown to smithereens. Nitish Kumar’s chances of being elected as an opposition candidate seem over. All in all, it was like a B-grade movie with predictable lines and without the Bhojpuri cameos that would have at least provided musical or comic relief. Watching Mr. Kumar’s body language, both his desperation and his opportunism are obvious. The attention is back on him, and he is ready to script a new role for himself. One thing is clear, he hates being left out of power or history. Conscience, loyalty and patriotism are casualty words in this game of politics. He realises that he is condemned to being a medium-level Machiavelli in the age of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. He senses that his days creating an opposition Camelot are over, that no one takes the idea of the opposition seriously. He now understands it cannot be his next vehicle to national politics. He himself admits a reactive opposition is no opposition. It has neither vision, mission or even the makings of a strategy. At one level, one feels Mr. Kumar has added a sense of cynicism to politics. At another, one senses his hormonal need for power, his desperate need for centre stage. His current tactics have been exhausted. His desperation is the fable of the Opposition’s desperation as the Modi juggernaut rolls across India. There is joy in the Modi camp as Mr. Kumar’s decision becomes “the need of the hour”. Somehow clichés and crises seem wedded together in India. It is obvious that elections are not around the corner. Mr. Kumar’s alliance with the BJP will rule till new options become available.

The so-called Nitish Kumar saga has to be seen as a fable of the opposition letting down the people. As one watches the Opposition, one senses desperation. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam look outdated. M.K. Stalin appears like a local politician out of his depth. Sitaram Yechury looks tired, like the ideology he espouses. Mamata Banerjee is too worried about West Bengal and Gorkhaland to worry about a nation. The Congress’s standard one-line remarks move between the cryptic and the unaware. It is almost as if the dissipation of the Congress has caught up with the opposition. One can sense the desperation of Mr. Kumar as he sees any viable future disappear before him. To survive, he chooses second-best. The BJP must be chuckling to itself wondering how Bihar or Tamil Nadu are falling into its basket like ripe mangoes. All it has to do is to continue behaving like a party whose time in every sense has come. Mr. Kumar’s options are limited. He can stay in power but is beholden to a party which understands his only loyalty is to power.

The BJP juggernaut

Bihar today exemplifies the meaning of a word which is wonderfully appropriate to it. It was coined in the Second World War as an acronym by soldiers forced into futile errands. The word is SNAFU and it means Situation Normal, All Fouled Up. Bihar is a mess such that no one seems to be bothered. Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, Tejashwi Yadav, all seem to be symptoms of the ailment we call electoral democracy. Each of them has decided that what is personally good for them is good for Bihar. The hypothecation of Bihar to greed, pomposity and ambition seems complete, and Mr. Modi, quick to exploit the situation, hails it as a patriotic act. It is almost as if the opposition died its numerous deaths this week, recognising the prospect of facing the BJP juggernaut is futile. As parties become empty and enervated, the BJP’s majoritarianism sounds more and more authoritarian. The so-called Mahagathbandhan has destroyed the dreams of JP, content to be knee-jerk in its commitment to democracy. Musical chairs is the new ritual of electoral politics.

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