Nitish Kumar: India's Weakest Chief Minister Today
Desperate attempts to stay afloat and relevant
Bihar’s Nitish Kumar has to be India’s most vulnerable chief minister (CM) at the moment.
This may be an odd thing to say after Kumar’s reportedly key role in clinching the Rajya Sabha (RS) deputy chairpersonship for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) about a fortnight ago but let us not forget that: (a) the abstention he is said to have engineered came from a party (the Aam Aadmi Party, or AAP) miffed at not getting Rahul Gandhi’s support-seeking call on behalf of the opposition candidate; and, (b) the vote he is said to have swung came from a party (the Biju Janata Dal, or BJD) that has really not needed Nitish Kumar’s outreach to side with the NDA in the past.
It is doubtful if Kumar would have delivered had the NDA fielded a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate for RS deputy chairperson and the opposition had a non-Congress candidate for the post. It is still more doubtful if the likes of AAP and the BJD will be similarly respectful of Kumar’s urgings when it comes to supporting a name for weightier office such as that of the prime minister (PM). Kumar’s recent ‘achievement’ then owes more to inter-party dynamics than the goodwill he supposedly enjoys.
Dissent within the party, meddlesome governors, carping allies, and a noisy opposition are things Indian CMs learn to live with, and only two individuals can be said to be presently ‘challenging’ Nitish at the most vulnerable CM stakes. Maharashtra’s Devendra Fadnavis has a prickly ally in the Shiv Sena and needs to be ready with a survival Plan B all the time. Karnataka’s H D Kumaraswamy is contending with some assertive Congressmen in Karnataka. Neither man is as helpless as Nitish Kumar though.
Fadnavis can hope to survive a Sena backout with help from his party’s formidable backroom team. Kumaraswamy would know that the Congress has little option but to make the alliance with his party work. Karnataka is among the few states the Grand Old Party is in government and demonstrating an ability to work with allies is critical to its 2019 plans.
Kumar meanwhile is an entirely short-term option for the BJP, his long-term, briefly-estranged ally and current partner in government, and anathema to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Bihar’s principal opposition outfit.
Under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP has acquired annihilatory intent vis-à-vis opposition and ally alike and views partners like Nitish as stepping stones to its own hegemony. RJD is the party Nitish Kumar aligned with during his estrangement with the BJP and ditched after riding piggyback to chiefministership. For a man who lacks a mass base and has delivered electorally only as a sideshow, it is a far from enviable situation to be in.
Not too long ago, Kumar was sushashan babu, a good governance mascot for messy Bihar’s reported turnaround, and the liberal’s preferred PM candidate. The fall from that perch has been rapid, and Nitish Kumar only has his own political opportunism to blame.
The June 2013 separation from the NDA was an attempt to endear himself to the ‘secular’ opposition and emerge as its consensus primeministerial candidate against Narendra Modi, especially since the sushashan babu tag he was carrying then presented opportunities to counter the Gujarat Model Modi and his cheerleaders had begun touting. The plan did not work out. Kumar’s secular credentials did not impress the opposition, his silence and continued partnership with the BJP after the 2002 Gujarat riots continuing to rankle.
The ghar wapsi to the NDA in July 2017 – less than two years after going to the electorate with the RJD and the Congress and re-gaining chiefministership with their support – has only confirmed Kumar’s willingness to embrace ideologically polar opposite alliances as long as they serve personal political ends.
With the BJP hardly having a stellar record when it comes to being corruption-free, Kumar’s explanation that the corruption charges against the RJD’s First Family became difficult to live with cuts no ice. (Ram Vilas Paswan is another individual who has shown similar ‘flexibility’ but the disappointment Kumar’s acrobatics have caused are greater, mainly because Paswan has never really been considered PM material and a good governance mascot.)
Nitish Kumar’s ghar wapsi then is just a desperate attempt to recapture lost mojo with an old and communication-savvy partner. That too is proving difficult. For two reasons.
A: The initial sushashan claim was rooted more in potential and hope than substance (changes being reported were either anecdotal or over abysmally low bases) - and a good deal of it owed to hype from BJP-friendly sections of the media. Recall how quickly the sushashan babu tag disappeared after the tiff with the BJP, and any present-day reference to it is generally in the past tense.
B: The BJP now sees Nitish Kumar as a placeholder and doesn’t really have an interest in promoting and propping him beyond a point. It would rather milk whatever residual goodwill Kumar commands up to 2019 (as it did for whatever it was worth in the recent RS election) and build its own muscle in parallel.
Not the sushashan babu anymore, expendable to his own, unwelcome to others, trusted by neither, and with his own modest voter base steadily being eaten into, Kumar today is a man without a future, holding on to his chiefministership at the mercy of a ruthless ally.
Nitish Kumar’s occasional ‘secular’ articulations, demands for special status for Bihar, and overtures to the opposition have come to be seen in some quarters as muscle-flexing and preparation for another somersault in the run-up to 2019 – as if he still holds some cards up his sleeve. In reality, they are desperate attempts to stay afloat and relevant.
Of course, things can change in politics but if they do for Nitish Kumar, it will be amidst a constellation of immensely fortuitous circumstances.