What makes Nitish Kumar special (Comment)

By Amulya Ganguli, IANS
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Bihar outcome has confirmed the pre-poll conventional wisdom about Nitish Kumar’s victory based on his successes on the development and law-and-order fronts. But what makes the chief minister stand out from his other equally successful political colleagues like Narendra Modi, Mayawati and Naveen Patnaik is the inclusive nature of his politics.

As a result, although the three others have also led their parties to comfortable victories in their states, it is only Nitish Kumar who is being regarded as a possible prime ministerial candidate in 2014. While Modi carries the millstone of the 2002 riots round his neck, Mayawati is seen as being too obsessed with her own caste, the Dalits, and Patnaik is seemingly still tainted by his earlier association with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In contrast, the new star of Bihar has emerged with a remarkably clean record on all these counts.

Although Nitish Kumar, too, has the BJP as an ally, he has made it abundantly clear that he has nothing to do with its pro-Hindu agenda. His difference in this respect from Patnaik is obvious. The latter retained his partnership with the BJP till the anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal left him with no alternative but to break his ties. Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, ensured that Bihar remained riot-free throughout the last five years.

What is more, he went out of his way to demonstrate his sensitiveness to minority apprehensions by telling the BJP that neither Modi nor Varun Gandhi could campaign in Bihar. The meekness with which the BJP accepted this diktat evidently contributed a great deal towards reassuring the Muslims. As a result, Nitish Kumar was able to break the longstanding Muslim-Yadav (MY) alliance which used to be the trump card of Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

So, it wasn’t only Lalu Prasad’s abysmal failure on the development front during his 15 years in power which led to his downfall. Nitish Kumar also successfully eroded the basis of the RJD’s electoral advantage by, first, winning over a section of the Muslims and, secondly, by retaining the support of the upper castes as well via the BJP. It was clever tactics where the BJP was made to act strictly in accordance with the script written by Nitish Kumar by excluding the minority-baiters and also keeping the upper castes on board.

It is this inclusive approach, which partly replicates the Congress’s earlier Brahmin-Harijan-Muslim alliance, which is Nitish Kumar’s distinguishing feature. It also marks his difference from Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had scored an even more spectacular victory by securing a single-party majority in Uttar Pradesh in 2007, but who has since faded away because of her obsessive penchant for erecting statues of herself and other Dalit icons.

In contrast, the entire focus of Nitish Kumar’s attention was on building roads, jailing anti-social elements and encouraging the education of girls by providing them with school uniforms and cycles - the three areas (out of many) which Lalu Prasad had neglected. Not surprisingly, there has been a massive response to his appeal to the voters to support the doer.

The outcome, therefore, marks the beginning of a new phase in Bihar politics, where the long-prevailing excessive emphasis on caste has been diluted - at least partly. True, Nitish Kumar also played the caste card by focussing on the extreme backward castes (EBCs) and the so-called Mahadalits.

Aware that he might not be able to make any inroads into the RJD’s main base comprising Yadavs, who make up about 20 per cent of the population, Nitish Kumar turned to the EBCs, who constitute about 32 per cent, and include castes such as Kahars, Dhanuks, Kumhars, Lohars, Telis, Mallahs, Nais (to which former chief minister Karpoori Thakur belonged) and so on.

Then, to undercut the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ramvilas Paswan’s hold on the Dalits, the Nitish Kumar government had set up the Mahadalit Commission to identify the most deprived among the Scheduled Castes and focus on their upliftment. As may be expected, the Paswan community was left out of the list of beneficiaries of government schemes.

Notwithstanding this partisan manipulation of castes, there is little doubt that it is still the development projects and the improvement in law and order which are primarily responsible for Nitish Kumar’s success.

What may have also helped him is his modesty. It is not impossible that he consciously eschewed Lalu Prasad’s flamboyance, realising that such bluff and bluster can have a negative impact in the absence of achievement. He also remained aloof from the controversial postures of the kind which the president of his party, Sharad Yadav, took on issues such as the women’s reservation bill (threatening to commit suicide if it was passed) and on including castes in the census enumerations.

It is as the doer, who wants to restore Bihar’s reputation of the 1960s as one of the best-run states, that Nitish Kumar evidently wants to be remembered. The voters have given a thumbs-up to his ambition.

(24.11.2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)

Filed under: Politics
will not be displayed