Aditya Sinha: Nitish is a long way from endgame
Joining hands with the BJP will never put Nitish Kumar in the PM or President's chair, so he likely has another card up his sleeve
Do not rule out another volte-face by Bihar CM Nitish Kumar at some strategic moment in the future. Pic/PTI
Many believe that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's joining up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and forming a new state government after ditching Lalu Prasad's Mahagathbandhan ensures a 2019 parliamentary poll victory for the NDA. I'm not so sure. One, the election is 22 months away, an eon in politics. Don't forget that for the last NDA government headed by AB Vajpayee, things began to unravel 12 to 14 months before the End. And while it is easy to praise Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah's strategy, planning and execution, hubris and the BJP are old acquaintances.
Two, never underestimate Nitish. Today, many upper-caste Biharis and middle-class urban-India Modi fans love him while he is a traitor in the Opposition's eyes. It is no doubt difficult not to think of Nitish as a political opportunist. However, look at last week's twists and turns in the world's other big democracy, America, where the Republican Party tried to overturn Barack Obama's healthcare laws as it had been promising for the past seven years. The right-wing could not agree on how to repeal 'Obamacare' and their replacement bill failed to come to the legislature floor again and again. Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain got up from an operation on a cancerous blood clot in his brain and voted to bring a lighter version of the bill to the Senate floor. Republicans called him a hero; the media called him a turncoat and traitor (sound familiar?) who had endgamed himself. The bill was defeated by a single vote, ironically cast by McCain himself, and because he brought it to the floor, a new Bill can't come till the next fiscal year. McCain played a masterstroke, and exacted a quiet revenge on President Donald Trump, who on the campaign trail cavalierly insulted McCain's capture and imprisonment in Vietnam.
Nitish is not McCain and Modi is not the dolt that Trump is. But Nitish's longevity as CM has the feature that he always managed to keep the positive spotlight on himself (cycles for girls, filling up vacancies for teachers in government schools, prohibition) and he has always manoeuvred the negative spotlight onto others — be it Modi or Lalu. The negative spotlight has never been on Nitish and I doubt that he will let it fall on him during the three years till the next Bihar Assembly election, despite Modi's best efforts. If you go by what commentators are saying, Nitish plays a long game. So while they may say this dumping of Mahagathbandhan and joining the NDA was Nitish's endgame, Amit Shah will work towards ultimately installing a BJP CM in Patna; and Nitish can never hope to be PM or President, both posts intended by the NDA for RSS men. As he's an ambitious man, he would have foreseen this set of outcomes, so do not rule out another volte-face by Nitish at some strategic moment in the future.
Three, abuse is being heaped upon Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, with some saying that the July 22 Rahul-Nitish meeting was the reason Nitish dumped the Mahagathbandhan; that Rahul's lack of drive, clarity or roadmap forced Nitish to choose a more secure future with the NDA. It might be so; I don't know, I wasn't at the meeting. What seems likely is that the Congress party will likely be better focused in the next one year, whatever Rahul's personal strengths or flaws. This is thanks to the BJP, which has destroyed the natural constituencies of OBCs and Dalits in both UP and Bihar, and none of the leaders — Akhilesh Yadav, Mayawati, or Lalu Prasad — has shown the imagination to counter the BJP's efforts. Disgruntled post-Mandal voters could well return to their original party, the Congress, provided the party gives them a reason to.
For instance, if the BJP hawks nationalism as its electoral sales pitch, then the Congress can take a leaf from its Karnataka chief minister and pitch sub-nationalism as its brand, something that can evolve as both a post-Mandal and a post-kamandal ideology.
Four, any message depends heavily on the messenger. Former Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan felt the Opposition had no one of Modi's stature and he was correct. For the moment. The Congress does have someone who can, like Modi of 2013, storm the country, whip the party and the Opposition into shape, and scare the pants off Amit Shah. I don't have to mention her name. Suffice it to say the BJP loves having Rahul in charge of the Congress and the Opposition. That is hubris. It prevents the 2019 poll from becoming a certain NDA victory, no matter how debilitated the Opposition might right now seem. I'll bet Nitish has silently kept one last card up his sleeve, to be deployed when the moment is just right.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to email@example.com
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