Archive for March 2013

Nitish Kumar is back — and it’s business as usual in Patna. The huge “adhikar” rally that he held in Delhi is behind him. Right now, he is enthusiastically taking part in the ongoing Bihar Divas celebrations — which, while marking the state’s inception, have been holding the chief minister of Bihar up as the leader of the people.

On the surface, he is doing all that is routine. Kumar starts his day at around seven in the morning with the newspapers. He calls up government officials if a report — negative or otherwise — catches his eye. And then it’s time for the Assembly, his office, and his janata darbars.

Kumar, 62, is every inch the mukhya mantri that he was before his rally. In Delhi, he had a mission — he held meetings with the Prime Minister and the Union finance minister to urge that the state of Bihar be given a special status.

But back in Bihar, the chief minister — dressed in his trademark white kurta and pyjamas with a grey waistcoat — is honing his image as the people’s leader. He hobnobs with poet-director Gulzar at a literary festival this week, and then waits — fruitlessly, as it turns out — for singer Sonu Nigam to make an appearance at another function.

His thoughts, his colleagues insist, are all focused on Bihar. New Delhi, they insist, is far away. But Kumar is also a man who keeps his cards close to his chest. “This is not the time to talk about all this,” Kumar tells The Telegraph.

Outside Bihar — and in some quarters within the state too — the Kurmi leader, a qualified electrical engineer, who has been ruling the state for seven years, is being watched very closely. Was the rally — ostensibly held to voice Bihar’s demands for its rights — a dress rehearsal? Is the rally Kumar’s way of making a bid for the Prime Minister’s post in the 2014 election?

Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party has informally thrown his hat into the ring. Will Kumar — not known to be one of Modi’s supporters (three years ago, Kumar returned the Rs 5 crore that Modi had offered for the rehabilitation of Bihar’s flood-hit people) — take on Modi?

The first feelers he received are significant. The chief ministers of the neighbouring states — Mamata Banerjee of West Bengal and Naveen Patnaik of Odisha — have been in touch with him, insiders say, seeking advice on how to get their states’ due from the Centre. Talks are on to start an economic union involving the eastern states.

“Kumar is talking about issues such as pro-poor policies and better share of funding for states from the Centre which no regional party will disagree with. Also, he goes above all caste or class differences,” says Shaibal Gupta, member secretary of the Patna-based think tank, the Asian Development Research Institute.

“It has become clear that he is the most powerful spokesperson for backward states,” says Kumar’s cultural advisor, retired diplomat Pavan K. Varma.

Indeed, Kumar is a leader of some standing. Known for his no-nonsense style of functioning and secular image, he has close ties with many political leaders. And that’s why speculation is rife on whether he will be encouraged to make a bid for the Prime Minister’s post if the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) fails to notch up adequate numbers in the general elections.

“He has clearly hinted that a non-Congress and non-BJP front is likely to emerge. And he has the capability of leading such a front,” Janata Dal (United) member of Parliament Ali Anwar Ansari says.

Right now, of course, he is with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP. “As of now, our alliance is intact. If and when we announce Modi’s name for the post of Prime Minister, we will seek Nitish Kumar’s views formally,” says Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the BJP’s national spokesperson.

But Kumar’s colleagues in the JD(U) insist that Kumar will pull out of the NDA if the BJP zeroes in on Modi. “Kumar has always protested against Modi. The moment his name is declared, we will pull out of the NDA,” says Ansari.

And if that happens, his name is likely to emerge as one of the contenders for the Prime Minister’s post. “If the Congress and the BJP win 150-160 seats each, any leader with 30 seats can become crucial in the post-election scenario,” says Pune-based psephologist Suhas Palshikar. Kumar, he says, then could be in the race, just as other regional leaders — such as Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati or Mulayam Singh.

In other parties, the reactions are cautious. “It is too premature to say if there will be a Third Front. One can only talk about it after the elections,” says BJD member of Parliament Jay Panda, a view endorsed by the Left parties. “The question of the Third Front will form only after the elections,” says CPI(M) central secretariat member Nilotpal Basu.

One reason Kumar’s name is doing the rounds in political circles is that the JD(U) leader is seen as someone with more friends than enemies. He is already on good terms with the leaders of regional parties such as the Biju Janata Dal, Trinamul Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Known for his secular credentials, he has good ties with Left leaders such as Sitaram Yechury and A.B. Bardhan.

His advantage over leaders such as Mamata, Mayawati or Jayalalithaa is the old link he has with socialist groups. “Regional party leaders such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, Naveen Patnaik and even the Chautalas once belonged to the Janata family and that is a big advantage,” says Mumbai-based political analyst Jai Mrug.

He is from the Hindi heartland, which is also seen as an advantage. Then, unlike some other regional leaders, he is also being upheld for “good governance”. Bihar is today the fastest growing state in the country. With a 10.9 per cent rate, it has overtaken Gujarat in terms of growth rates. Bihar’s per capita income almost doubled from Rs 7,914 in 2004-2005 to Rs 15,268 in 2011-2012.

As the leader of a state that was often described as lawless and underdeveloped, Kumar is also being seen within the state as the saviour of Bihar. “There was a time when our people were ashamed to call themselves Biharis. But now they take pride in the fact. Nitish Kumar has given us back our lost identity,” state education minister P.K. Shahi says.

Agriculture, his admirers point out, is booming in the state, and literacy graphs are going up. To boot, his personal image has always been clean. A teetotaller who lost his wife, a teacher, in 2007, Kumar is not a propagator of dynastic politics either. His son, a graduate from Mesra’s Birla Institute of Technology, is seemingly not interested in politics.

Not everybody is sure if all this is enough to catapult him to the Centre. G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, a psephologist who works closely with the BJP, says efforts to cobble up a Third Front will not succeed because the leaders have “bloated egos” which will come in the way of coalition politics. “Would Jayalalithaa be acceptable to Mamata; Mulayam to Mayawati,” he asks.

Another disadvantage that Kumar faces is the number of seats that he can win. “At present, out of the 40 parliamentary seats in Bihar, his party has 20. It can win five more in the 2014 elections,” says Gupta. Mayawati and Mulayam, on the other hand, are battling for 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh, while Mamata and Jayalalithaa are banking on improving their tallies in the 2014 poll. Kumar can rely only on his 25-odd seats.

If he breaks ties with the BJP, the chances of winning even these many seats will weaken. “Nitish is a backward leader who has successfully crafted an alliance of backwards and forwards. If he is thinking of dumping the BJP, he is sure to lose the upper caste votes,” Mrug says. A Delhi-based analyst, however, stresses that Kumar then will get the support of the Muslims who are right now with his rival, Lalu Prasad Yadav.

But Kumar, some critics hold, has his downside. Some call him “dictatorial”, and others point out that the state is still to see prosperity. “There are many issues that he has not been able to improve. He has not done land reforms,” says a Patna-based political analyst. He has also not been able to sort out serious problems with the power situation, which have kept industry out of Bihar.

His party colleagues pooh-pooh such arguments. Ansari believes what’s important is that no government can be formed in 2014 without Kumar’s intervention.

The chief minister, his supporters say, will either emerge as the kingmaker — or the king.

 (A version of this story was published in The Telegraph with inputs from V Kumara Swamy on March 24, 2013)