The lone ranger

Written by Ashwani Kumar | Updated: Apr 20 2014, 08:53am hrs
Written in elegiac prose around the bowdlerised cliches of the life of Nitish Kumar, Single Man captures the vicissitudes and eccentricities of post-revolution Bihari politics with near-Shakespearean gravitas. Part-novella, part-biographic, the book is a gripping polyphonous portrait of a hesitant rebel, an opportunistic hermit, a self-confessed Lohiaite, a vernacular cosmopolitan and a focused vagabond who set his eyes on power early, so early he himself had no cause to believe. No wonder, Sankarshan Thakur writes almost intuitively that he is a mover and artfully stealthy one, an accusation that has Nitishs fabled coalition of extremes in tatters and has also defanged his political reliability among the classes and the masses alike.

His bitter divorce with the BJP was, indeed, the most honourable option for him, but the proverbial utilitarian micro-social engineering of elections seems to have deserted the qualified electrical engineer. Tragically, in the ongoing elections, the unlikely hero of a rainbow revolution of good times is on the verge of facing a rout of his dreams to liberate Bihar from its self-inflicted miseries.

True, he is a quintessential lone ranger, but dont write him off, avers Thakur quite presciently, as he can be monumentally patient and work beaver-like to achieve his hour. Lets not forget that Nitish is never permanently unemployed even though he had burnt his engineering degree to protest against unemployment in 1975. In short, Nitish is an uncanny story of a much celebrated, yet troubled Naya Bihar that an emigre Harrisburger like me is in awe and fear of the fast vanishing present in Bihar.

Single Man is not an authorised life history of Nitish, but movingly emotes flashbacks of his past, where his status as a reluctant husband to Manju Kumari Sinha is not only a trope of memory of private neglect, but also a moment of epiphany in the life of a public hermit. The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar is more like a graphic novella of a man who is obsessed with his own self-discovery alongside the reawakening of his people, who have been cheated by the social justice of caste, crime and corruption of so-called subaltern saheb. If the Laloo-Rabri raj gave Bihar new myths to celebrate deprivation and opulence, Nitish has led Biharis around the world to discover passions and pleasures in high-brow modernism, a developmental state and cultural pride in the rising Naya Bihar.

Known for his style of blurring political reporting and personal memoir, Thakur records in a chillingly Kafkaesque tone that there is nothing heroic in Nitishs life, whom even JP considered studious and took no note of. Yet, in the same breath, Thakur brusquely intimates us that Nitishs political journey from the son of Vaidyaraj Ram Lakhan Singh and Parmeshwari Devi in the subaltern boondocks in Bakhtiyarpur to demi-god status of Vikas Purush in modern Bihar is alluring, irresistible and almost surrealistic. Blurring the boundaries between monologue memories and social history, Thakur detects in him a strange streak of disdain for bhitarghaat (internal sabotage) and an enjoyment of fratricidal war, something Lord Buddha had warned of Patna denizens in the antiquity.

Critics berate him for his alleged opportunism. Colleagues, mostly politicians, find his Nietzschean superior will and increasing afsarshahi a hindrance in the pursuits of quotidian politics, informs Thakur. Die-hard fans consider him a strong leader, diligent and decisive without being dictatorial. Though the differences between them are deep and critical, as they represent a radically opposed idea of India, there is an uncanny similarity between Nitish and Narendra Modi, hints Thakur. Both are able administrators, believers in presidential style of leadership in parliamentary order and have a personal fetish in insulating themselves from nepotism and personal taint. Unlike Modiji, Nitish is neither charismatic nor authoritarian. Still, his trusted team of bureaucrats, often found popping Pinom-40 BP pills, find him to be the mythical Wizard of Oz who has reinvented a dysfunctional Leviathan into a policy paradise. His charmed circle of cultural advisers eulogise him as a Gramscian organic intellectual who wows not only Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Meghnad Desai, but also rewrites the grammar of governance for the poor, Mahadalits and Pasmanda minorities. Yet, he is not adored by neo-middle classes, cockneyed backward castes and unwashed masses in his own Naya Bihar.

We all know ambitious Nitish or the other copybook Nitish Kumar who is too civilised to swear by any cuss words. But only Nitish knows better than anyone else that he is his own making. In this Derridean territory of Apollonian melancholy lies the secret of his success and his turbulent relationship with his political siblings. A large part of his enigmatic persona is formed by what Freud calls an unconscious memory of fratricidal warfare among his friends and peers since college; even when he is overwhelmed with the crowning glory of his success, he harbours threats to his numero uno position. In a reminder of Erik Erikson-type psychoanalytic reconstruction of early life, Thakur reveals the psychological origins of Nitishs obsession for personal hygiene and pathological aversion to the Congress party that treated his father, a loyal Congress apparatchik, so badly that it continues to rankle in his heart. Nitishs idiosyncrasies and oddities, including his manner of dress, address, discreet habit of occasionally chewing khaini (tobacco) and a liking for thin ararot biscuits and chai are part of his persona. In the compellingly original chapter Handyman, Thakur dazzles in not only decoding the mistri man RCP, keeper of Bihars power seraglio, but also surreptitiously lifts the veil on the mystique of Nitishs public success and private anguish.

As the book is also about an avant-garde genre of anecdotal and conversational epistle, I conclude with a personal memory of my only face-to-face encounter with Nitish in 1996. While he was preparing for a long haul to vanquish his redoubtable friends-turned-foes in Patna, he had found company in my father during morning walks on Boring Road. Busy in cultivating a base for his newly-formed Samata Party, he missed attending a wedding at my house. But he remembered to return the traditional Bihari neota (invitation). One evening, he casually walked into my house and gave me an envelop with an affectionately clear direction: Babu ji ko Nitish Kumar ka neota de dijye ga (Hand over your father Nitish Kumars wedding gift). It is this un-heroic, next-door boyish Nitish who is missing these days in Bihar, perhaps gone into hiding to rediscover his magic of personal hygiene to cleanse squalid power politics. Whatever be the results of the 2014 parliamentary elections, the life of Nitish will haunt us as lessons and lesions of a never-ending saga of Bihars struggle against its own history. Little wonder, Nitish and Laloo are Siamese twins, with Ramvilas Paswan and Sushil Modi the estranged cousins. And this strange twist of post-colonial fate has led Nitish Kumar of Bihar to live a Life of Pi, an allegorical tale of historys own double.

Ashwani Kumar is the author of Community Warriors and professor and chairperson at Centre for Public Policy, Habitat and Human Development, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai