Deconstructing Nitish Kumar

Book cover of The Battle for Bihar: Nitish Kumar and the Theatre of Power
This book holds a fact-filled and merciless, albeit empathetic, mirror into the soul of one of our interesting politicians — Nitish Kumar. Arun Sinha’s 400-page book painstakingly draws out the many identities of his “very intimate friend” — they were batchmates in engineering college — and demonstrates how they have defined and damned Bihar’s chief minister, currently facing perhaps his most challenging political test.

Nitish’s professed identity is of a “professional politician” acutely conscious of his social supremacy as the recipient of people’s winning vote in a democracy. He is a proud Bihari driven by the need to replace Bihar’s image as synonymous with everything wanting in India with something reflecting its glorious heritage. He has no other distractions but the pursuit of power to make a difference to Biharis. As Mr Sinha notes: “He despised riches but loved power; he hated gold but loved glory.”

In caste-besotted Bihar, however, Nitish is first and always a Kurmi, an upper backward caste. But Kurmis are only 3 per cent of Bihar’s population unlike the 14 per cent of his bete noire,  Lalu Yadav, who has made a career and founded a dynasty on the compatible Muslim-Yadav coalition. The social coalition Nitish has stitched to gain and retain power has, however, had to include upper castes, which has meant co-habiting with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), even though Nitish knows he does not, and will not, get any Muslim vote as long as he partners the BJP.

Despite the BJP albatross, Nitish will  brook no compromise on his secular image. As Mr Sinha recounts, he promptly quit the National Democratic Alliance in 2013 when the BJP anointed Narendra Modi as their prime ministerial candidate. Four years later, he was back with the BJP after having consorted with every other party, the Congress included, to forge an anti-Modi coalition, when the Yadavs threatened to sully his image of an honest politician. 

The Modi-led BJP then gave him sleepless nights in its majoritarian thrust after the 2019 sweep but he furbished his secular image when he got the BJP to back an Assembly resolution in late February 2020 that Bihar’s population register would  follow the 2010 Congress model. This model seeks only the most basic documents to establish a citizen’s identity — diametrically different from the much more aggressive BJP advocacy of a process that would be more akin to the tortuous Assam model.

It is this dynamic interplay between Nitish the prickly personality and Nitish the driven and proud politician — the problem solver who combines an engineer’s logic-driven mind with a socialist’s sensibilities and political grounding — which is the book’s leitmotif. Mr Sinha’s close proximity to Nitish gives him rare access to the volatile Nitish, leaving him with the challenge of being unbiased and objective — a test he mostly passes.

The Battle for Bihar: Nitish Kumar and the Theatre of Power
Author: Arun Sinha
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 437
Price: Rs 499

Unintentionally, the two versions of the book define two distinct phases of Nitish’s reign. The original version was published after the highest point in Nitish’s career — his sweeping victory in the 2010 Assembly elections, which was solely engineered by his political adroitness and the visible improvements brought about in the state’s physical and social infrastructure. With Nitish as the pivot, this version was a comprehensive history of Bihar over the previous 40 years, covering its main political, social and economic dynamics by drawing deep into Mr Sinha’s own deep attachment to his home state and his formidable journalistic skills.

This version, published last month, updates with the help of a redone introduction and two epilogues, and covers the far more chequered last decade of Nitish’s stewardship. Not only has the politics been far more torturous in this period but Nitish’s victories have been mostly pyrrhic. Nothing, perhaps, captures the slippery outcome of his efforts to lift Bihar than that Bihar’s poverty level measured by NSO consumption data actually went up from 33 per cent in 2011-12 to 50 per cent in 2017-18, despite the many strenuous and innovative efforts by Nitish to move the mountain of the state’s economy.

Mr Sinha’s even-handedness in examining Nitish does not flag in the updated version, which makes it all the more surprising that he chooses not to comment on two of the more defining moments of Nitish’s recent stewardship: the introduction of prohibition in Bihar — on which there is not a word — and on his strident opposition to the return of the state’s three million-plus migrants following the March lockdown. 

Had he looked down those alleys, he would probably have found a basis to proffer pre-emptive answers to the loudest questions in Bihar’s politics today. One: How popular is Nitish today, with surveys indicating a marked dip in his personal popularity? Two: Does he still consider himself the pivot of the state’s politics who can still outwit his partner, the BJP? The question is moot following the googly bowled by the Paswan family’s Lok Janshakti Party, undoubtedly with a wink and nod from the BJP, to oppose Nitish while re-affirming its support to Modi.

The book would have been embellished by reflections into a few aspects that must figure high in Nitish’s own quieter moments: What is his considered opinion of Modi? How does he look back on his 15-year stewardship of Bihar; what could he have done better? But, for all that, the book is a must read for anybody interested in India’s politically most fascinating state.

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