Nitish invades Delhi, brings politics of poor to centrestage

The composition of the crowd which turned up in the thousands was markedly different from the well-heeled middle class that thronged the rallies of Anna, Baba Ram Dev or Arvind Kejriwal.


Ajay Singh | March 16, 2013

Nitish Kumar
Nitish Kumar

Bihar, led by its chief minister Nitish Kumar, invaded the national capital today in a determined bid to change the contours of national politics in the run-up to elections 2014. Thousands of poverty-stricken faces with inadequate body mass marched on the privileged roads of Lutyen's Delhi for a an Adhikaar (rights) rally at the Ramlila grounds in a rare show of solidarity on Bihari pride.  

India's history is replete with instances of insurrection against the rulers by the meek and the poor. On Sunday at the Adhikaar Nitish Kumar led this silent insurrection against the rulers in New Delhi and cautioned that his campaign for special status to Bihar would alter the power equations in the coming Lok Sabha polls. "Only those who care for the poor and carry with them all sections of society will rule at the centre," he declared making it clear that his rally would mark the beginning of a political realignment in the country.

The composition of the crowd which turned up in the thousands was markedly different from the well-heeled middle class that thronged the rallies of Anna, Baba Ram Dev or Arvind Kejriwal. Similarly, the visible preponderance of the working class, particularly rickshaw pullers from the walled city, at the rally was indicative of the attraction of social underdogs towards Kumar's political campaign. Such crowds are conspicuous by their absence in political mobilisations of main stream parties except the BSP or the left parties.

Nitish Kumar's rally was a significant in other ways, too. His foray into political capital Delhi took place close on the heels of a series of  high voltage apperances of  the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi who was unambguous in stating his national ambitions. Even at the party level, he is being propped up as the most popular leader who is set to take charge for 2014 polls. In this context, Nitish's political show in Delhi was expected to offer a contrast given his stated position of anitpathy to Modi.

In the rally, Kumar successfully conveyed the message that he would align only with those parties who believed in inclusive growth and cared for the poor. His exhortation to other states to join the movement is a shrewd move to realign regional parties of West Bengal, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh on a single platform that would be equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP. From his assertions it seemed like Kumar was positioning himself for a very substantial role in national politics. The fact that he sounded genuine and carried credibility with the masses will be a matter of concern for both the national parties in the run-up to 2014.

Nitish rally is a soft launch of a third front against Rahul, Modi
(Pre-rally report, posted on March 16)

Politics practiced without the art of communication runs the risk of ending up as a sterile power game among a group of social elites. In an age of highly democratised communication, the style of delivering a message and its content is critical for a mass leader. And Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar qualifies to be a mass leader by any reckoning.

As he braces himself to address probably the biggest rally of people from Bihar at the Ramlila grounds in Delhi on Sunday, he seems all set to redefine the political contours of the country. Of course, Nitish has been working towards this denouement; his Adhikar Yatra that culminated in the grand rally at Patna's Gandhi Maidan in November was a precursor to this Delhi show.

There is no doubt that Nitish has been carrying a complex message rooted in history and highlights a discriminatory approach of the ruling elites towards Bihar in particular and all underdeveloped states in general. In his view, the Congress regime right since independence has implemented skewed policies that favour developed states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and the southern states to benefit industrial houses which have been the source of funding for the party. The growth of industry and infrastructure in these states has come at the expense of the states which were later categorised as BIMARU states.

In his Adhikar rallies, Nitish consistently explained that this discrimination has continued till today as the devolution of funds from the centre to the states is based on a formula that goes against underdeveloped states. Apparently realising that the masses would find it difficult to comprehend such a complex argument, Nitish has made a case for a ‘special status’ for Bihar. In a series of meetings, he has successfully put across the message effectively that the ‘special status’ is a panacea for all ills of Bihar. "Bihar would be prosperous and restored to its glory once the centre recognises this status," he has said at these rallies, striking a sympathetic chord with the people.

To keep the message simple and comprehensible, Nitish has tactically limited himself to Bihar. But the underlying significance of this message for national politics can hardly be missed. Surely and subtly, he has been forging a coalition of those underdeveloped states which have been fighting with the centre over the discriminatory approach. For instance, Odisha, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand are some of the states where regional political players are raking up these issues and would not hesitate to align with the Bihar chief minister.

Broadly the issue has the potential of forging a coalition of regional forces which would be equidistant from the Congrss and BJP and still have the potential to dictate terms in the event of a hung parliament in 2014. In a way, Nitish’s Delhi rally will initiate a process of coalescing constituents of a ‘third front’ without formally declaring the existence of such a front. In terms of national politics, Nitish has been definitely working towards creating an alternative to Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi without beating the bush about it.

Through this masterstroke, Nitish is quite confident of overcoming fault-lines that exist in society back in Bihar. For the past seven years, he has been aggressively taking up the cause of Bihari sub-nationalism in order to subsume the caste contradictions in the state. Though he has succeeded to a great extent, the fragility and tentativeness of his success is not lost on him on many occasions in the recent past. Even during his Adhikar Yatra, there was a consistent attempt to mobilise people on caste lines to protest against him.

Nitish's emphasis on the ‘special status’ for Bihar is a carefully crafted demagoguery which aims to obliterate these fault-lines and project the Bihari society as a cohesive entity. The rosy picture of a Bihar after the special status that he has been conjuring up is a veritable Eldorado. The effective communicator that he is, he has convincingly persuaded his Bihari audience to believe that Bihar has been historically wronged by policymakers. By taking this battle to Delhi, he is giving the present rulers a chance to amend their wrongs and restore for Bihar its rightful status. Having established the notion of collective victimhood for Bihar, Nitish has identified the enemy too.

It is in this context that Nitish’s moves need to be understood. On Sunday, he is expected to be at the best of his oratory to convey this complex political message in the simplest terms. Given his felicity with words and his shrewd understanding of Indian politics, it would not be a difficult task for him.




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