The lone ranger

A part-biographic, part-novella traces the life of Nitish Kumar, while also pointing at similarities between him and Narendra Modi

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 Nitish?s 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 don?t write him off, avers Thakur quite presciently, as ?he can be monumentally patient and work beaver-like to achieve his hour?. Let?s 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.

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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 Nitish?s life, whom even JP considered ?studious? and took no note of. Yet, in the same breath, Thakur brusquely intimates us that Nitish?s 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 Nitish?s 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. Nitish?s 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 Bihar?s power seraglio?, but also surreptitiously lifts the veil on the mystique of Nitish?s 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 Kumar?s 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 Bihar?s 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 history?s 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

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First published on: 20-04-2014 at 03:23 IST