In an era when the underworld gets intricately linked to politics, criminals easily acquire the language of profound political analysts. Hence, there couldn't be a more apt description of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar than former RJD MP Mohammad Shahabuddin’s brief comment, defining him as “a chief minister of circumstances.”
After walking out from Bhagalpur jail on Saturday, with a swagger that cocks a snook at the rule of law, Shahabuddin’s contempt for the chief minister was unambiguous. He insisted that he would not make any attempt to change himself as people had accepted him for “what he is”.
He very rightly described Lalu Prasad Yadav as his leader, who heads the biggest party in Bihar – the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). The implicit message being that Nitish Kumar’s survival as chief minister was hugely dependent on RJD and Lalu Prasad.
Contrast this with the situation in Bihar after the 2005 Assembly elections, when Shahabuddin – nicknamed Shahabu-AK 47 (as the gangster was known to introduce assault rifles in the underworld for the first time in the region) – was brought to book by a group of police officers in the reign of Nitish Kumar.
Shahabuddin was one of the many politicians with criminal antecedents to have found themselves behind bars during the first stint of Nitish’s rule (2005-10), which was exclusively devoted to the resurrection of the state and the restoration of majesty of law.
But in people’s perception, Nitish Kumar’s first mandate was clearly larger than the mere resurrection of the state. Bihar was clearly more of a moral than a political project. Nitish Kumar derived his strength more from his moral positioning than his political coalition of upper caste Hindus and non-Yadav OBCs in Bihar.
He was perceived to be a man of impeccable credentials with a progressive and secular outlook. That was the precise reason why a significant section of Muslims drifted towards and even voted for the BJP in the following Assembly elections in 2010.
In his second stint, Nitish Kumar clearly fell victim to his own hubris. His domineering conduct queered the pitch for his BJP colleagues within the government. The relationship got strained further as he made his intentions clear of breaking the alliance following the projection of the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 General elections.
Still, Nitish Kumar’s brand of politics was not seen inconsistent with his moral positioning. He was seen as a leader weaving an effective counter to Modi’s narrative out of conviction not convenience.
Of course, much of this came from his desire to put himself up as an effective counter to Modi’s emergence on the national level. But nobody can hold a grudge against Nitish Kumar for nursing a larger than life political ambition.
His parting of ways with the BJP and drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls apparently disoriented his politics. He started losing his moral position when he chose Jitan Ram Manjhi as his successor after losing the 2014 polls. Manjhi was considered to be a lightweight and pliant enough to pose any real threat.
But the script went haywire as Manjhi proved to be too ambitious to let Nitish Kumar take over before the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls. Though Nitish Kumar quelled Manjhi’s revolt, he came across as an usual shrewd politician ready to acquire power by “hook or by crook” – to quote from Sankarshan Thakur’s book Single Man: The Life and Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar.
In what appeared to be the most pragmatic approach that bordered on sheer opportunism, Nitish Kumar buried the hatchet with Lalu Prasad Yadav and forged a grand coalition along with the Congress to defeat BJP in 2015. And he proved to be more than a match for BJP in every respect as he used all the tricks of the trade to outfox Modi.
In his political journey since the 2010 Assembly elections, Nitish Kumar has lost substantial moral ground. Although, he still retains a pale shadow of his former self – the image of a sober, matured and trustworthy politician from Bihar.
The recent spectacle of Shahabuddin’s cavalcade breezing past highways of the state after his release from Bhagalpur jail, however, has robbed Nitish Kumar of even the fig leaf of morality that he had tried to retain.
His meekness in surrendering to Shahabuddin is more eloquent than his fierce resistance to stop Modi from campaigning in Bihar in the 2005 and 2010 Assembly elections. As of now, his lack of moral authority gets accentuated in his failure to implement prohibition of liquor in the state.
But it would be wrong to find fault only with Nitish Kumar for pursuing a brand of politics devoid of ethics and morality. The list is long. The BJP and the Congress are pioneers, followed by regional satraps all over the country. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has for long been roping in underworld dons to wean away caste groups. Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati are never hesitant in using politics as means to pursue their personal and selfish interests.
Perhaps the cloud of despair has engulfed the silver lining that Bihar had once generated. In Nitish Kumar's 2015 victory lies buried the moral project of Bihar. In such a context, those with criminal antecedents would come out with more accurate political prognoses than the analysts.