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Nitish Kumar: Destined to be perpetual No.2?
Nitish Kumar: Destined to be perpetual No.2?

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Amulya Ganguli

The aphorism "know thyself" was explained by Greek philosopher Socrates as a phrase which referred to an "unexamined life". The renewed rumours about Nitish Kumar's future plans provoke queries as to whether the Bihar Chief Minister has closely examined his life in politics.

So far, his political journeys have seen him move from the company of his friend Laloo Prasad Yadav during the days of Jayaprakash Narayan's anti-Congress agitation to Atal Behari Vajpayee's government at the Centre and an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bihar, to Laloo Prasad Yadav again as a part of an anti-BJP Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) in Bihar and then back to the BJP.

After these switches, there is speculation that he may return to the Mahagathbandhan again. The reason for the latest conjecture, that has dwelt on the possibility of an electoral contest between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar in Varanasi in 2019, is the latter's reported unhappiness over the way he has been treated by the Modi dispensation during his latest tenure as the Chief Minister.

A sign of this displeasure was Nitish Kumar's refusal to have anything to do with the International Yoga Day, which the BJP likes to observe with great fanfare. In addition, the Chief Minister has been sending out signals that he will call the shots in Bihar in the matter of seat-sharing with the BJP in 2019. Since he cannot expect Big Brother to accept this proposition lying down, he is obviously spoiling for a fight.

A recent phone call by Nitish Kumar to Laloo Prasad Yadav to inquire about his health has added grist to the rumour mills despite the categorical refusal by Yadav's son, Tejashvi, to allow Nitish "chacha" (uncle) to return to the alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress.

There are contrary views apart from such gossip which assert that the BJP's currently somewhat weakened position after several by-election defeats has encouraged the previously embattled Nitish Kumar to assert himself in order to secure a better bargaining position.

Against the backdrop of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's reported advice to the BJP to be more accommodative towards its allies (which made Amit Shah have a closed door meeting with the Shiv Sena's Uddhav Thackeray while Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis waited outside), Nitish Kumar has probably decided that the time has come for him to flex his muscles.

At the same time, he may not be averse to playing both sides since sections in the Congress are said to be not unwilling to let him return to the "secular" fold.

Whatever the outcome of these calculations, it is undeniable that Nitish Kumar has done his reputation considerable harm by being the subject matter of such guesswork. There is hardly any other example of a generally well-respected political leader being associated with what only be described as floor-crossing on so many occasions.

Opportunism may be too harsh a word for a senior leader like Nitish Kumar, but what is obvious is that, first, he does not find it easy to choose the right ally and, secondly, that having chosen one, his hopes about how he should be treated fall short of his expectations.

This happened in the days of the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar after its trouncing of the BJP in 2015 and has happened again after he joined the BJP two years later. On both occasions, he apparently felt that being the Chief Minister was not enough, for he was not being treated with adequate respect.

Nitish Kumar's disadvantage is that his support base is not strong enough. Being a Kurmi, a backward caste which constitutes four per cent of Bihar's population, he was unable to match the social and political clout of the Yadavs, who make up 14.4 per cent, the largest percentage of all the castes in the state, when he was in the Mahagathbandhan.

Now, as an ally of the BJP, Nitish Kumar appears to be unable to cope with the overbearing nature of the Modi-Amit Shah duo. The realisation may be dawning on him, therefore, that his fate marks him out to be a No. 2 person wherever he is, notwithstanding his reputation as "Sushashan Babu" or a person known for delivering good governance, which cannot be said, for instance, of perhaps the most important person in recent years in Bihar's political life, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who currently alternates between being in jail or in hospital.

Given the shaky nature of Nitish Kumar's present status, where he does not seem to be at ease in the BJP's company while the "secular" camp can hardly be said to be waiting for him with open arms, the former poster boy of the national opposition with the potential to be the Prime Minister is at a loose end.

What has led him to a blind alley is a seeming failure to "know" his strengths and weaknesses while taking a hard look at his options in a sharply polarised atmosphere.

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Update: 07-July-2018

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