Bihar: Round one to Nitish, six months to the bell

Manjhi’s rebellion fizzled out in the long night of February 19. He was left alone with the banner of revolt against his mentor

ajay

Ajay Singh | March 2, 2015


#bihar   #nitish kumar   #jitan ram manjhi  


A day after he was called to take oath as chief minister of  Bihar, Nitish Kumar, sitting in the lawns of his residence, looked pensive when asked by a journalist if he had also invited Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. “Let Kejriwal work in Delhi, as he has a lot of things to do” was his cryptic reply that conveyed the message.

Quite uncharacteristic of his usual reticent self, he explained his remark in yet another prescient postulate, “Don’t take it otherwise but the problem with you (journalists) is that you do not see beyond the immediate.” Perhaps, nothing could summarise contemporary Bihar politics better than Kumar’s diagnosis of the political analyst’s inability to see beyond the obvious.

Nine months ago, when Kumar resigned after his rout in 2014 Lok Sabha elections and handed over the reins to Jitan Ram Manjhi, he appeared to be a leader who had let his emotions get the better of him. There was no apparent reason for him to resign, much less to choose Manjhi as his successor. There was an impression that Kumar had taken his political fight with prime minister Narendra Modi too personally. The manner in which Kumar steadfastly and consistently opposed Modi seemed guided more by personal than political reasons.

Kumar’s decision to break alliance with the BJP did not go down well with the electorate which rejected him completely in the Lok Sabha polls. When he resigned after the results, his popularity hit nadir. There seemed no scope for recovery as Kumar’s instinctive actions flummoxed analysts.

The prediction of Kumar’s eclipse as a political force in the state did not require any foresight. Even BJP heavyweights in Delhi proclaimed that they could engineer a vertical split in Kumar’s Janata Dal (United). The confusion got further confounded when Kumar cosied up to his arch rival and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav as well as Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. How could he align with someone he opposed for nearly two decades, asked even Kumar’s die-hard supporters.

With the Modi wave sweeping across the country, Kumar seemed to have lost the plot. This was further evident when his decision to throw in his lot with Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) evoked disdain of a loser as the BJP won Haryana election hands down. Unfazed by successive setbacks and taunts of even his supporters, Kumar went ahead with his grand plan of putting up a credible coalition against the BJP. He approved the merger plan of socialist forces – essentially an alliance of non-BJP, non-Congress parties – spread over the country, which could contain the division of votes. In the meantime he undertook a serious contemplative session and a tour across Bihar to understand his indiscretions that had cost him the state.

Few noticed that the selection of Manjhi as chief minister had effectively turned the heat away from Kumar. Though popular anger was building up against him, Kumar orchestrated backroom manoeuvres to revive the spirit of his party. He held 40-odd training sessions with his party workers to explain his long-term strategy to fight the BJP. His actions indicated that Kumar had given up the game to win the match.

That it was a ‘red herring’, Kumar’s rivals could not discern. The BJP tried to prop up Manjhi and a section of JD(U) rebels to expose the chinks in Kumar’s armour, without realising that Kumar had effectively covered his flanks in the past nine months. When Manjhi was asked to quit and make way for his mentor Kumar, he was convinced about his invincibility with the help of the BJP. His advisers, mostly scheduled caste bureaucrats, also persuaded him to believe that he had emerged as a dalit icon in his own right, like Mayawati.

In fact, Manjhi’s revolt was not an ordinary revolt. He symbolised a numerically powerful section of scheduled castes, particularly Musahars, who had been assiduously cultivated by Kumar in his eight-year term as an inalienable constituency of the JD(U). There is little doubt that Manjhi had captured the imagination of this most oppressed section of society. The manner in which he stood up to powerful satraps within his party was seen as a sign of pride.

The script would have gone completely awry for Kumar had the Delhi debacle of the BJP not coincided with the events in Bihar. The BJP leadership was sceptical of betting on Manjhi as Kumar had flown in his legislators to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to prove that he was being denied a legitimate chance to form the government in Bihar. Kumar met president Pranab Mukherjee and emphasised his morally and legally tenable position in front of the national media. This was a brilliant tactic; it hit the BJP at its most vulnerable moment.

On February 20, when Manjhi was to take the vote of confidence, the BJP state unit could not resist the temptation of tripping Kumar, without realising its own weaknesses. The myth of Modi had evaporated with the Delhi polls and Kumar appeared to be on much more solid ground with Lalu Prasad and other non-BJP forces by his side. Manjhi’s rebellion fizzled out in the long night of February 19 when he was virtually left alone to carry the banner of revolt against his mentor. Manjhi then drove straight to the Raj Bhavan to submit his resignation before the trial of strength began, leaving the BJP bewildered.

In the evening, Kumar was invited by governor Keshri Nath Tripathi to form the government. It was curtains on the nine-month-long theatre of the absurd. Thereafter, Kumar successfully reignited the popular imagination with an emphasis on governance as his core competence.

His apology to the people of Bihar and his eagerness to cosy up with Modi for development of the state were carefully designed to take the attention off his well-known prejudice. Kumar is back in the reckoning as a powerful force, but he would have a limited window of six months to turn the tide in his favour. This is not an easy task, yet Kumar’s ability to fashion a long-term strategy without losing his close-range vision is formidable. Needless to say, in such political manoeuvres, analysts like us would only have the benefit of hindsight.

ajay@governancenow.com

(The article appeared in March 1-15, 2015, issue)

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