Nitish Kumar breaking ranks with Lalu, Congress to support Ram Nath Kovind could set off political realignment in Bihar

Nitish Kumar created a flutter by sticking to his decision to back Ram Nath Kovind, the NDA nominee in the presidential race, even after Meira Kumar, a Congress leader hailing from Bihar, was named as the 17-party Opposition's choice for the top constitutional position in the country.

Many have described Nitish's decision as a smart political move; at a time when his electoral partners — Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family members — are getting increasingly embroiled in corruption charges, Nitish has apparently found ways to rebuild bridges with BJP and Narendra Modi for a possible association in the future, if necessary.

This is, of course, not a one-off instance when Nitish Kumar broke ranks with his alliance partners, RJD and Congress. He wholeheartedly supported the NDA government's claims about surgical strikes against Pakistan, at a time when Sonia Gandhi and Lalu Yadav were picking holes in this claim.

More importantly, when the entire Opposition was up in arms against Narendra Modi's demonetisation plank, Nitish showed his solitary streak by being the only Opposition leader to defend the move.

 Nitish Kumar breaking ranks with Lalu, Congress to support Ram Nath Kovind could set off political realignment in Bihar

Nitish Kumar accepted Lalu Yadav's support in 2015. PTI file image

How does one describe these positions? Some would insist Nitish Kumar is just another ordinary politician, who looks at events through the lenses of political profit and loss and accordingly takes a call. They would argue that his is the classic case of conviction politics — if he is convinced that something is right, he says it, and defends it with all his strength without bothering about its political fall-outs.

In traditional parlance it may be dubbed political madness, but Nitish is ready to brazen it out over his conscience, his supporters would say.

But there is the other view — that there is a method to Nitish's madness — that as a politician, he is not bogged down in the short-term, the immediate; that he has an uncanny eye for the future and he will make his moves with such dexterity that it confounds both his political friends and foes.

The strongest argument to buttress Nitish's conviction politics claim was his support to Pranab Mukherjee as the presidential candidate in 2012, when the latter was propped up by the ruling Congress-led United Progressive alliance (UPA), even as the BJP-led NDA had fielded PA Sangma as their candidate. Nitish was then Bihar chief minister in alliance with BJP. Nitish had claimed that Mukherjee was better suited for the top constitutional position as he had an intimate knowledge of constitutional niceties. But then how was Sangma — a former chief minister of Meghalaya, a nine-term member of Lok Sabha, and Speaker of the 11th Lok Sabha — perceived to be not familiar with the role of president was a question that baffled everybody.

Nitish's position in the 2017 presidential election also raises some questions. He was one of the early backers of the idea of a consensual opposition nominee against the ruling party candidate, as he insisted time and again that BJP was bound to field someone with an RSS background and said it must be opposed to uphold India's secular fabric.

Nitish made repeated visits to New Delhi in the last few months and met leaders of opposition parties like NCP, CPI, CPM, INLD, Congress etc., to forge Opposition unity on a common candidate for post of president.

But when BJP announced the name of Ram Nath Kovind, a man with a deep RSS background, as its presidential choice, Nitish chose to eat his words and extended support to him on the ground that the former had conducted himself well as governor of Bihar and that he had the requisite qualities to be a good president.

The announcement of Meira Kumar's candidature by the opposition conclave on Thursday could have persuaded Nitish to change his mind. After all, she is a former diplomat, a three-term MP and a former Speaker of Lok Sabha with a distinguished record. It is to be expected that Meira has all the credentials to fit the job of president. But Nitish decided to stick to his guns — to support Kovind, ignoring Meira's claims.

Will this have political implications? Many would see it as Nitish distancing himself from Lalu Yadav's RJD and mending his relationship with BJP. Sushil Kumar Modi, BJP's Bihar head, indicated as much when he said at a media meet that he received most of the information about Lalu Yadav's illegal property — which were seized by the Income Tax department — from Nitish Kumar's close associates in the Janata Dal (United). This assertion may or may not be true; it may be Sushil Modi's way of driving a further wedge between Nitish and Lalu, but there are firm indications that Nitish is increasingly finding it difficult to pull on with the Lalu clan in the government, especially after central government agencies like the CBI and Income Tax department appeared to be closing in on establishing corruption charges against the family.

That is possibly the reason why Nitish stuck to his stance on the presidential race, even as Lalu Yadav pointedly presented Meira Kumar as "Bihar ki Beti". Opposing a Dalit candidate from Bihar with impressive political credentials and heritage (daughter of independent India's pre-eminent Dalit leader, Jagjivan Ram) in favour of a Uttar Pradesh-based, RSS-trained, BJP nominee will cost Nitish Kumar loss of political credibility in the short term, but he knows that this move could be the basis for the future realignment of the political forces in Bihar.

To that extent, it is smart politics. Nitish had resorted to similar such moves in the past as well, as and when the situation demanded it. After 17 years of association with the BJP, he broke with the saffron party and chose to lead a minority government in 2013 on the issue of Narendra Modi as BJP's prime ministerial candidate. Questions were then raised that he had no qualms in staying on as Union minister in the BJP-led government even after the infamous Gujarat riots happened in 2002 under the stewardship of the same Narendra Modi.

Nitish rocked the boat in 2013, as by then he had served as chief minister for eight years and had already created a strong Muslim support base with a series of welfare measures. He was afraid that backing Narendra Modi as prime minister would break the Muslims away from his support base. He therefore took the unusually bold decision to terminate the alliance with the BJP, though it cost him politically in the short term. He knew that his long-term political future was secure with the Muslim vote bank firmly backing him.

Nitish Kumar chose to go it alone in 2014 and found that the Muslim support base alone was not enough to prop him to power in identity-based politics in Bihar, especially against a resurgent BJP under Narendra Modi.

That is when he suffered no pangs of conscience in embracing Lalu Yadav, a man he had derided for two decades for presiding over "jungle raj" in Bihar. It was a question of political survival for both. The alliance pulled a miracle; it stopped the Modi juggernaut on the soil of Bihar in the 2015 Assembly election.

Nitish Kumar now realises that in the new dispensation, his Muslim support base has become a spent force; most Muslims have veered away from him to Lalu Yadav, their original benefactor and who is now in a position to ladle out benefits to them, now that his party is in power.

Nitish Kumar, in the last one year, has created an alternative support base among women with his draconian liquor prohibition measures. But he knows that a majority of rural women's support would also not be enough to pitchfork him to power in Bihar. Now that the Muslim votebank issue is out of the way, he sees the distinct possibility of a resurgent political future by collaborating with Narendra Modi, decidedly the most popular political leader in the country today.

Nitish Kumar's stance in the current presidential race has most likely set the stage for the beginning of a new political realignment in Bihar.

Updated Date: Jun 23, 2017 09:26:18 IST