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By Saying Yes to BJP's Prez Nominee, Nitish Has Just Said No to Lalu Yadav

In this December 10, 2015 file photo, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar greets Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)

In this December 10, 2015 file photo, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar greets Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)

Two years is not exactly a long time in politics, but apparently that was all it took for Ram Nath Kovind to win the heart of Nitish Kumar.

New Delhi: Two years is not exactly a long time in politics, but apparently that was all it took for Ram Nath Kovind to win the heart of Nitish Kumar. The Bihar governor who ascended to the high seat in Patna only in August 2015 has now won the support of the state chief minister on account of being “the first Bihar governor to be nominated for President besides being a great Dalit leader.”

But, as is always the case with Nitish Kumar, a ‘Yes’ to someone is also a ‘No’ to someone else. By endorsing the choice of his political opponents Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, Nitish has in effect put his ally Lalu Prasad Yadav on notice.

We are yet to hear from Lalu Yadav or his camp on what they think of the Nitish move, but the Modi-Shah decision to pick someone with a link to Bihar has come as a blessing in disguise to the CM. For one, Camp Lalu can opt not to go along with Nitish and his JDU in the Presidential polls, but they can’t go overboard in criticizing the move because the man involved has just been hailed as “Bihar’s pride”.

Nitish gets to send his message to Lalu and his family – embroiled in CBI and Income Tax raids – that they cannot take his support for granted. More importantly, the BJP now owes him a favour as the Nitish move has effectively scuttled any chances of a decent Opposition show in Presidential polls.

A file photo of RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar sharing a light moment.

“The CM wanted to send a clear message to those whose deeds are causing a stink,” a close aide to Nitish told News18 on condition of anonymity. He was looking for opportunities to distance himself from Lalu & Co, and this one came along, he said.

Well, if there is one thing Nitish has repeatedly made clear throughout his political career is that political opportunism may be kosher, but he would never accept a taint on his character. “Nitish kumar ki poori jama poonji daav par lagi hai (Nitish has staked his entire reputation in this alliance with Lalu),” said another close aide of the CM.

“Good governance, zero tolerance to corruption… these were his USPs,” he said, adding that the Bihar CM now finds himself vulnerable on those planks thanks to the shenanigans of the Lalu Yadav clan.

As a result, despite running a coalition government with RJD in Bihar, he often distances himself from the Yadav family, and despite being in Opposition to the BJP-led Union government, he is no longer seen as a Modi basher – a turnaround for someone who was seen as staking his political career in emerging as the “secular” David to Modi’s Goliath.

Launching Nitish 3.0

Late last year, a few days after PM Modi went on prime time TV to announce that 85% of the cash in circulation in the country has just been rendered invalid, Kumar found himself on the road again. He was on one of his many “yatras” that have now become part of the Bihar chief minister’s political project — like the Emperors of yore who used to travel incognito to find out how their administration was faring — crisscrossing the hinterland, staying at government circuit houses, conducting public durbars.

Kumar chose to break away from the Opposition impulse of dubbing demonetization as a disaster. He issued statements supporting the move, calling it a fight against black money even when his party colleagues Sharad Yadav & Co were holding Parliament to ransom over the note ban.

Word is that Nitish took that personal call to back Modi because he read the public sentiment well. The Bihar CM kept gauging the public pulse over demonetization during his ‘Yatra’, and he realized the move had the support of the teeming masses, who interpreted it as a war against the corrupt and the crooks.

But then even the master of realpolitik gets carried away at times. Early in February, while launching a book by former finance minister P Chidambaram, Kumar did a volte-face. He slammed demonetization as a big blunder and called for Opposition unity.

In this file photo, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and RJD chief Lalu Prasad are seen together. (Image credit: PTI)

His close aides confide that Kumar regretted it very soon. “He wasn’t sure about the Assembly poll results in Uttar Pradesh. He didn’t see the Modi wave sweeping UP, and he spoke too quickly,” said one of the aides quoted above.

Well, that learning experience has been filed away deep inside the mind of the man who was once touted as a possible pan-Opposition alternative to stop the Modi juggernaut. Nitish Kumar, then modified his game: Party politics and grandstanding with Opposition can wait till the national picture gets clearer. For now, Nitish wants to build a grand, new personal narrative that will serve him two goals: Breaking free from the clutches of his political partner Lalu to regain the anti-corruption plank; and providence permitting, carry Brand Nitish nationwide.

Ergo, he has extended his yatras outside the borders of Bihar. Out here he is not trying to check the pulse of India in the run-up to General Elections 2019. He is on the road to send a moral message that is more Gandhian than Lohiaite. The man who promised the women of Bihar — incidentally, one of his biggest vote banks — prohibition and followed up on his words by clamping down on even those who enter the state inebriated, wants the rest of the country to stay sober.

In this January 5, 2017 file photo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar share lighter moments during the 350th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Gobind Singh at Gandhi Maidan in Patna. (PTI Photo)

Over the last few months, Nitish has travelled to several states, pitching himself as the anti-alcohol crusader. He went to Chhattisgarh where the BJP CM Raman Singh soon promised to implement a ban on sale of alcohol. Nitish even ventured into the red citadel of Kerala where his political friends CPM have overturned the prohibition policy of the previous Congress-led government.

In Kerala, to the discomfort of the Reds, he pitched for total prohibition claiming that post the ban in April 2016, Bihar has seen a 55% decline in road mishaps, 24% fall in murders and 16% reduction in petty theft.

A few faces must have surely turned red at those stats: The CPM government was working on creative ways to reopen bars along the national highways that had to be shut post a court order.

If Nitish 1.0 was about aligning with BJP and “rescuing” Bihar from the jungle raj of Lalu, Nitish 2.0 was about joining hands with Lalu to stop BJP from polarising Patna. Nitish 3.0, is a developing project, where the mantra seems almost military-like: Clear, build and hold.

Nitish knows he doesn’t have a chance against the Modi-Shah juggernaut in 2019 as things stand. Staying politically relevant itself is a grand success as BSP, SP, the Left and a whole host of regional parties are discovering themselves painfully. He is doing just that.

Of Virtues & Necessities

For starters, reinvention has become a necessity in Patna. Nitish, who first became chief minister for just 7 days in 2000, appears to be rudderless in his fifth term.

Emerging details of alleged corruption and land deals involving Lalu Yadav’s family have unsettled Nitish. In fact, a day after the first allegations surfaced, Lalu was seen visiting the CM’s residence to explain his side of the story. Nitish hasn’t spoken on it so far.

Over the last few months Nitish has been giving mixed signals of his governance agenda. The man who gave wings to the dreams of Bihar’s young girls by distributing free cycles, who made Bihar the first state to implement 50 per cent reservations for women in government jobs and panchayats, seems struggling for a new narrative. Nitish 3.0, whatever it will be, is also about making a virtue out of a necessity.

News18 spoke to several bureaucrats working in Bihar and Bihar cadre IAS officers posted outside to understand why Nitish is faltering in his ‘Vikas Purush’ image and what does he plans to do about it

One of them explained that the problem lies more in the nature of the state. Nitish 1.0 brought Bihar back from the abyss of lawlessness. Nitish 2.0 was all about building infrastructure. Nitish 3.0, logically, should be about addressing the biggest issue facing the state: Unemployment. But that can only be done through massive industrialization, which, in turn, demands massive influx of capital into Bihar.

That unfortunately is not happening. And Nitish knows it better than anyone else.

“Bihar mein big ticket investment nahin aayega,” is what Bihar Chief minister has often told bureaucrats. It’s ruthless pragmatism given the fact that Bihar has small landholdings and is landlocked. OP Shah, former president of Bihar chamber of commerce who retired in December 2014, quotes statistics to back up that point. Between 2008 and 2014 Bihar saw an investment of Rs 14,000 crore, but most of these investments were only between Rs 10 crore and Rs 50 crore, despite a single window clearance system and a special law to promote investment.

“Bihar has shortage of land, in the absence of special incentives why will anybody invest in the state?” asked Shah. Another bureaucrat laments lack of urban infrastructure in the state, the staring shortage of anything remotely resembling urban planning.

“There are no new modern cities, forget smart cities. It is status quo. Look at Patna, urban planning is completely missing and the city is frozen in time, the only addition are the highways,” he said.

While several Indian states have taken up mass rapid transport system such as metro, mono-rail and public transport buses, it is completely non-existent in Bihar.

And that recurring, cruel parallel with Gujarat — for which Nitish himself is partly to be blamed as he pitted himself against Modi for years — isn’t helping. “In the Gujarat of 1960s and 1970s, top bureaucrats themselves used to shadow big industrialists showing them around. This led to massive and quick industrialisation of the state. But if that happens in Bihar, you will be branded as being close to corporate houses. Even the single window clearance is a myth,” said this officer.

The bureaucrat quoted earlier who lamented the typical nature of Bihar’s geography and mindset summed it up neatly.

“For Nitish, development means social justice. The political class often equates industrialization/urbanisation as moving away from that lofty goal. Ergo, it does not count as part of their governance responsibilities. So the focus is Indira Awaas Yojana, not jobs,” he said.

That he has now partnered with the self-proclaimed messiah of Mandalisation, Lalu Yadav, means Nitish has less and less room to maneuver on taking radical steps in policy even if he wants.

Although the “Super CM debate” — on if Lalu, the bigger partner in the coalition, would have more control on the administration through his deputy CM son Tejaswi Yadav — was settled within months of the government taking charge in Patna, many highlight the fact that no major reshuffle of SPs and DMs has taken place in the last one and a half years because of difference of opinion between the two doyens of Bihar politics. Posts of heads of several corporations and boards are lying vacant, a grim reminder of Lalu’s years of jungle raj when a whole set of administrative bodies remained headless for years.

Pratyay Amrit, CMD of Bihar State Power Holding Company, and Nitish’s bureaucrat for all seasons, begs to disagree that there is a paralysis. “There is no confusion among the bureaucrats at all. Priorities and policies are clear, targets have been given: There are 7 nischays. By December 2017, we have to give electricity to all villages. Regular monitoring and review is happening,” he said confidently.

Well, cheers to that. Meanwhile, the Bihar CM has embarked on a mission to elevate his national stature, a key feature of Nitish 3.0.

The National Nitish

The 350th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru, in Patna in January this year that saw Modi and Nitish Kumar sharing the dais was a major step in this direction.

Political commentator Neerja Chowdhury said the event spoke for itself: “The detailing with which it was done… Nitish proved that Bihar could do something with perfection.”

Chowdhury feels that Nitish’s PM candidature maybe a distant dream before he gets a disparate group of parties together.

“But maybe through all these, he is answering what he stands for individually,” she said, adding that Opposition needs an alternative idea. “They cannot be just opposing for the sake of opposing,” she said.

Social scientist Manisha Priyam sees the pitch of “Nasha Mukti Abhiyan” as an important move. “He is successfully marketing his image and policies. In interactions with state CMs and non-NDA leaders, he is positioning himself as a non-NDA pivot which will also give him a strong bargaining chip for the BJP. Either way it’s a good political move,” she said.

Maybe Nitish 3.0 is that process of building an alternative Opposition.
Marya Shakil Marya Shakil is an award-winning Journalist with over 12 years of experience. Her show on the Muslims yearning to be part of the mainstream earned her the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award in Politics and Government category in 2012. She also received the award in the same category for the Lok Sabha election coverage of 2014. Marya is Political Editor, Senior Anchor with CNN-News18 who works as part of the National Bureau team. She regularly anchors, reports and produces her show – Reporters Project. As a reporter who covers politics and ministries of Union of India, Marya reported during the General Elections of 2009, 2014 and the state assembly elections of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Jharkhand etc. She joined CNN-News18 (A Time Warner & Network 18 Service) immediately after completing her Masters in Mass Communication from Jamia Millia’s AJK Mass Communication Research Centre in 2005. She was also awarded a research fellowship with SARAI-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2004. She also won the prestigious Chevening South Asia Journalism Fellowship in 2016. Was the first tv journalist to report on the night of the clampdown of Baba Ramdev’s agitation at the Ramlila Maidan. Human interest stories and shows as commentaries on society are her forte, in which Marya has given successfully contributed some of the best stories to the channel/ She often takes workshops in media institutes in India. She enjoys interacting with aspiring students of mass communication and journalism. Travelling in the Hindi-heartland and learning from people is what she likes most.