Curious case of Bihars Khiladi Kumar
No longer enamoured
A most curious politician in this election is Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. There's a video on social media in which he is seen sitting on the dais at Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in north Bihar. Modi vigorously chants "Vande Mataram" and the crowd responds full-throatedly; the dais is crowded with politicians also standing and raising their arms with the cheers. All except Kumar, who remains seated and conspicuously unenthusiastic. No smile, even.
Why on Earth is Kumar so tense? After all, some reports say his JD(U)-BJP alliance is not doing too badly, considering that in Bihar the upper castes are solidly behind Modi, unlike in UP where the upper castes are split. His opponent, the RJD, is missing its chief Lalu Prasad, who is in poor health and has been incarcerated for corruption.
Lalu's physical absence is sorely felt on the campaign trail, and his children – former deputy CM Tejashwi, former minister Tej Pratap, and the eldest, Misa – do not share the warmest relationship. Additionally, the BJP gave Kumar the 17 seats he demanded out of Bihar's 40.
On the other hand, a BJP leader was recently quoted confessing that each party in the RJD-led Mahagathbandhan in Bihar was successfully transferring its caste vote to the other parties in the grand alliance. These include: the Congress party, former Union minister Upendra Kushwaha's party, former CM Jiten Ram Manjhi's party, and Mukesh Sahni's party. In certain seats, the Left is also part of this alliance. This arithmetic, even if only partially successful, is formidable.
Clearly, as in most of the country, the election is too close to call. The speculation overwhelmingly is that Modi will get no lower than 170 and no higher than 200 seats, a massive drop from the 283 he won in 2014.
The expectation is that this will not be enough for him to return as PM, even if his allies fall in line after demanding their pound of flesh -- after all, how many seats will his allies bring in?-- and even if Amit Shah is able to bring a well-known buyable party from the Hindi heartland (which itself may get 20 seats at the most). The magic number of 274 looks difficult for Modi, no matter how much help he gets from high Constitutional authorities.
This could be Kumar's opportunity to make the play he set in motion when, in July 2017, he dumped the RJD and Congress, with whom he had allied to contest the 2015 assembly election, and joined hands with the BJP. It was a treacherous move, even for politics, and though Kumar has on earlier occasions dumped either his erstwhile former Janata Dal allies or the BJP, his 2017 move left a bad taste in many peoples' mouths – and not just the voters.
If Kumar is expecting to become PM by rallying his NDA allies and parts of the BJP, he will still need support of friendly non-allies like the Biju Janata Dal (the AIADMK is another friendly non-ally, though it may not do well in this election), as well as others.
This is possibly why Kumar recently made a quiet visit to Delhi and tried to meet Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Perhaps he wanted to revive the Mahagathbandhan, or perhaps he wanted to discuss a few scenarios in case of the expected hung Parliament. As it turns out, however, Rahul did not have time to meet the Bihar CM.
Kumar must be in a bind. Not only has he missed the bus for being a post-election kingmaker -- this role clearly belongs to NCP veteran Sharad Pawar and Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee -- but he also has to think about his state assembly election which is due early next year.
Whereas in the last election he had a solid combination with the RJD and Congress, in this election, his current alliance is pretty much just the BJP and Ram Vilas Paswan with his section of Dalits. Kumar's own community counts for very little as far as numbers go, and the other backward castes, like the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs) have not forgotten the cavalier way in which he snatched back the CM-ship from Manjhi. In the existing alliance, Kumar may not be able to return even as CM. Thus, the current moment is a critical one in Kumar's political life.
No wonder then that Kumar sat grumpily with his arms folded and legs crossed as other politicians did the Mexican wave around him to Modi's "Vande Mataram".
Either he was mulling how he can pull himself back from the brink of political extinction, or he was deliberately showing himself to be no longer enamoured of Modi, with an eye to the post-election. Either way, he is a most curious figure in the final stretch of the current election.
Aditya Sinha's latest book, India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy, with Yashwant Sinha, is out now. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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