Desperate measures: Can Nitish Kumar’s gamble for larger role in national politics pay off? 

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Updated: September 01, 2021 3:08 PM

Nitish Kumar's recent manoeuvres do not suggest any differently than that of a leader trying desperately to keep himself relevant in the national political discourse.

Nitish Kumar's recent manoeuvres do not suggest any differently than that of a leader trying desperately to keep himself relevant in the national political discourse. (Express Photo)

The JD(U)’s dismal performance in the 2020 Bihar assembly elections had immediately set off speculations that Nitish Kumar’s political career is now over. A big reason was the BJP overshadowing the JD(U) in the assembly polls which eventually allowed the former to clip Kumar’s wings in the state leadership, despite him remaining the chief minister.

It seems like ‘Sushaasan Babu’, a veteran politician known for his old-school tactics which have worked in his favour so far, has also realised that with his fading relevance, it’s perhaps time for him to reroute his career graph back to the national stage.

Kumar’s recent manoeuvres do not suggest any differently than that of a leader trying desperately to keep himself relevant in the national political discourse. After his surprising stance on the Pegasus snooping scandal, Kumar is now spearheading the rising chorus for a caste-based census in the country, putting its NDA ally in a spot.

If the JD(U)’s decision to contest the forthcoming Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, with or without the BJP, was any indication, the resolution passed by the JD(U) stating that Kumar has “all the qualities of a prime minister” only cemented these speculations. Kumar’s party, however, later clarified that Narendra Modi “is and will be” the NDA’s PM face for 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

A section of political experts believe that Nitish Kumar’s political career has reached its summit and these recent moves may be an attempt to position himself as the face of a united opposition front, which will only turn futile, like they have in the past.

Nitish Kumar’s growing political ambitions

Speaking to FinancialExpress.com, Sangeet Ragi, HOD – Political Science, Delhi University, opined that Kumar may be looking towards snapping ties with the BJP and this might be the reason behind him advancing arguments in favour of a caste census, “knowing fully well that the BJP might not agree to it.”

Last month, Kumar led a 10-member delegation from Bihar to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the issue of caste-based census. The delegation included representatives from parties including RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav.

“Every politician has ambitions as not everybody is Naveen Patnaik who is satisfied in state politics. After serving the state for three consecutive terms as the chief minister, you start harbouring higher ambitions,” Ragi said.

“Nitish Kumar wants himself to be projected as different from the BJP. He thinks that his innings in Bihar politics is over and it’s time for him to move beyond and look for a national role for himself,” he added.

However, political commentator Dr Suvrokamal Dutta, in conversation with FinancialExpress.com, believes that the “Kumar’s resistance against the BJP is going to be futile” as he has tried the same in the past which turned out to be a “failure”.

Calling the recent moves by Kumar “political brinkmanship”, Dr Dutta said it is an attempt to demand better sops from the Modi government or “lobby for another Cabinet berth” for one of his loyalists.

“I don’t think that Nitish Kumar will be successful even if he leads the boat and tries to hobnob with the Opposition because he has done that in the past and his experience was horrible. Second thing, the Opposition also doesn’t trust him,” he said, calling Kumar the “setting sun”.

Revenge Politics by Nitish?

A major loss of seats for the JD(U) in the 2020 Bihar assembly elections (from 71 seats in 2015 Bihar polls to just 43 seats in 2020) despite contesting more seats than the BJP meant Nitish Kumar losing most of the bargaining power in the NDA coalition. Although he has been made the chief minister, BJP now has the upper hand in the coalition government, which runs the state.

Bihar Assembly Election Results 2020 – Party-wise seat share

However, Kumar has lately intensified efforts to fortify his political bastion. Kumar’s friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Upendra Kushwaha’s party is likely to be merged with the JD(U). Kushwaha has backed Kumar’s demand of a caste census and has even said that the JD(U) might might move out of the NDA if the demand was not met.

However, what needs to be kept in mind is that Kushwaha’s RLSP is a minor player in the state politics and for Kumar to make a substantial move to unite the opposition, he will have to join hands with the RJD, which emerged as the single largest party in the 2020 Bihar polls.

However, such a political alignment is unlikely, keeping in mind the 2017 political drama in the state when the JD(U) ditched the ‘Mahagathbandhan’ to join hands with the BJP.

Speaking to FinancialExpress.com, RJD spokesperson Chitranjan Gagan said that Kumar has lost the trust of the opposition and there is no chance of RJD shaking hands with him now.

“This Nitish Kumar is not the Nitish Kumar of 2015. His popularity and trust have fallen low. His recent moves are making it quite obvious that he wants to sail the boat with the Opposition but that won’t happen. How can someone who has failed as a chief minister, become the prime minister of the country?” Gagan said.

Tough road ahead for Nitish

While Nitish Kumar has catalysed his agenda against the BJP, him emerging as the face of a United opposition will not be an easy task, owing to several factors.

First and foremost, the so-called idea of a united opposition has failed time and again, despite several initiatives by leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, and even Nitish Kumar. Bringing all the non-BJP opposition parties under one umbrella has not been a successful attempt owing to the personal ambitions of these leaders.

In fact, the opposition parties have failed to unite and take on the BJP-led NDA government on issues like farm laws, GST, demonetisation and Citizenship Amendment Act.

Another factor is that the opposition in Bihar has lost trust in Kumar after he joined hands with the BJP. Back then, Kumar wanted to get rid of Lalu and he could see his future with Modi even though he had to make certain compromises.

Political analysts believe that Kumar resurrecting the alliance with the BJP in 2017, four years after he walked out of the NDA over Narendra Modi’s elevation as the prime ministerial choice of the coalition, has took his political graph towards culmination.

“If he would have come out of the NDA during the first time when he became the chief minister with the support of the BJP, though he had a very convincible victory in the state assembly, then things would have been entirely different and people would have accepted him,” opined Mr Ragi.

In 2015, a year after the Narendra Modi-led BJP government came to power, the Bihar poll battle became a Nitish Kumar vs PM Modi fight. In 2010, before the JDU quit the NDA, he refused to let Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, campaign for him.

Earlier, Nitish Kumar was seen as the only man who could rival PM Modi. With his clean image, he also represented the “anti-Lalu Yadav” spectrum in Bihar.

Secondly, experts believe that Kumar nudging the BJP over issues like Pegasus snooping row will not yield him much political mileage since the issue, unlike unemployment, inflation and fuel price rise, itself is not of much relevance to the common man.

Thirdly, if the JD(U) decides to move out of the NDA, it may have an impact in Bihar but not much in Delhi as the BJP itself has not been too willing in having alliances. With a strength of 300 alone, the BJP is already standing strong, dominating the Opposition in the Parliament.

However, the demand of a caste-based census might turn out to be a significant factor in Kumar’s favour owing to the fact that caste plays a crucial role in the Indian politics, especially in elections in states like Uttar Pradesh. In fact, the story of Indian politics over the last four decades can be read purely through the lens of the OBC. But uniting caste-based parties under one umbrella will be a challenging task, owing to the complex vote bank politics in different states.

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