Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar chose to make a different kind of headline on International Yoga Day. He decided not to participate in a much hyped event in Patna, which ironically was organised by the state government which he heads.
First off, let's consider the facts.
Nitish Kumar has a simple and organised personal life. His father Kabiraj Ram Lakhan Singh was a famed Ayurvedic vaidyaraj. Thus, he was introduced to the Indian system of medicine and yoga exercises since his early childhood. Those who know him closely would say that yoga is part of his daily life.
The International Yoga Day observed in Patna's Patliputra Sports Complex was organised by health, art and culture ministry with sports ministry providing necessary logistic support. The programme was attended by governor Satya Pal Malik, deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, other ministers and a whole lot of people from all walks of life.
Nitish's absence thus raises eyebrows in both political and non-political circles.
It's true that Nitish and his party JD(U) have not participated in International Yoga Day for the last three years, since it was first celebrated on 21 June, 2015. But in 2015 and 2016 (till mid-July), he was Prime Minister Narendra Modi's biggest and most vocal critic.
In the past, Nitish's party colleagues have been critical of Modi government's idea to celebrate yoga in a big way, and make it a big national event where top ministers, top officials, leading public personalities and the entire governmental and ruling BJP organisational machinery come into play to make everything related to it a grand, extravagant public show. Some leaders of the JD(U) had even made sarcastic comments on Yoga Day about BJP president Amit Shah.
Now Nitish leads a coalition government with BJP in Bihar and is part of NDA, both at the national and state level. He realises that it was largely because of the prime minister that the United Nations had decided to observe 21 June as International Yoga Day.
His absence from Yoga Day celebrations, thus, has its own meaning. An astute politician like him very well knows this decision to stay out of the event or go on a silent mode over the issue would instantly become an issue of public debate, more so when the event in Bihar’s capital was organised by the state government.
The explanation offered by two JD(U) leaders Pawan Verma and Neeraj Kumar, that yoga was a personal choice of an individual and those who practised it in private spaces need not do it publicly, is too simplistic to be acceptable. The BJP too sought to play it down.
By abstaining from a state function, Nitish is probably conveying a message to his alliance partner, the BJP, that he is not very happy with certain things and is positioning himself and JD(U) for 2019 parliamentary elections. His party leaders are on record saying that NDA has to fight 2019 elections (in Bihar) under Nitish's leadership. The proposition that Modi should be the national face of NDA, and Nitish should be NDA’s face in the state, is not illogical or without merit, but may put BJP in a tight spot.
Nitish Kumar's revised position on demonetisation, special status for Bihar, 15th Finance Commission allocations should thus be seen in context of the fresh positioning that he is making vis-à-vis BJP. His aim would be to get maximum seats, as much as he can from the BJP in next parliamentary elections. BJP has two more allies in Bihar, Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP. Over the years, when Nitish Kumar was part of the NDA led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, he had gone from strength to strength, both in terms of number of seats that his party contested in the state Assembly and in Lok Sabha elections. He used to have complete sway in the state government and his voice mattered a lot in national politics. His nominees would make to Raj Bhawans also.
But now, things are different. Today’s International Yoga Day event is a pointer. The two departments, health and culture, which hosted the event, are led by BJP ministers Mangal Pandey and Krishna Kumar Rishi. Whether or not an advance approval was taken from Nitish Kumar or how the ministers invited him to attend the event is not known yet. But what is clear is that the BJP is not playing a completely submissive role in the state government as it used to in previous terms.
Nitish Kumar has played yet another card to send his message across, particularly to the BJP leadership. It remains to be seen how Modi-Shah take that message and how they respond in times to come.
Updated Date: Jun 21, 2018 19:26 PM