Since 2005, Nitish Kumar has been Bihar's chief minister. Despite a former Union minister and till recently a close aide of Nitish, R C P Singh, who almost succeeded in bringing down the Nitish cabinet through a Maharashtra-like operation (splitting the ruling party from within and forming a new ministry with the help of the BJP), Nitish beat the BJP at its own game.
Instead of waiting for the all too predictable end, Nitish gathered his MLAs into one ragged bag, lugged those from other parties including Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD — with whom he had split five years ago — and the eternally hapless Congress, approached the governor on Tuesday, submitted his resignation, and then staked his claim the same evening to head a new ministry.
Nitish is a rough-and-tumble politician. That is another way of saying he is, like any good Indian politician, is cynical enough to understand that the entire idea of politics is not so much as to put power to the betterment of a people, but to acquire power first and then stay with it. Power for power’s sake.
These are lessons he picked from his stint in the BJP school of politics. Whether in Gujarat or at the Centre, the BJP led by the likes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, if they know one thing, it is never to relinquish power. They know that’s the only game worth playing. Society and media congratulating them on values and integrity and other vague abstractions are really of no consequence. It is just vanity.
This is a lesson in politics that leaders like Rahul Gandhi just don’t get. And so they are condemned to stay outside the window, pressing their faces against the glass, looking in.
Nitish has shown he is a master of the game. He wants in. And stay there. Anyone who knows anything about Bihar will tell you that everything in that state is a deal. It is give and take. It’s about things that do not work. That’s the whole charm: nothing works in Bihar. It is how it must have been since the Buddha. It is easy to understand the advantages of meditation there. To observe. For instance: no other region in India is it so easy not to appear in an exam and secure first rank. That things do not work encourages you to meditate. Things are not meant to work because that is the nature of the things. And then things begin to work if you know someone in the right place. And he or she would naturally expect you to return the favour in cash or kind for making the thing work.
It is a widely reported fact that since the early 1990s, since economic liberalization began, almost every state in India has widened its lead over Bihar on every front. The Bihar per capita income is one of the lowest in the country. Niti Aayog reports that the state lags in education, health, nutrition, and infrastructure.
This state of affairs is despite the fact that Nitish Kumar has been in power since 2005. Out of the 17 years or so that he has been in power, the BJP has been a partner in crime for over 12 years. But this is what it is. The focus has never been development. The focus has been power. And Nitish has proven to be a master at the game. There is no telling, therefore, that he would not switch sides again in the 2024 parliamentary election when Bihar must return 40 MPs. His victory on Tuesday puts him in a controlling position to manage the 2024 polls.
But equally, the Tuesday proceedings hold a lesson for the nation at large. A nation that is increasingly getting used to the idea that it can be a democracy without the semblance of a national Opposition. If Rahul Gandhi, let’s put it, gets rid of the idea in his mind that his party is still the great secular hope of India; he would also get rid of the idea deep in his mind — though outwardly he may not admit it — that he is the prime minister that India needs. If the primary priority is to offer a run for the BJP’s money, the Mahagatbandhan experiment that Nitish is acing in Bihar is the way ahead. Only someone as cynical as a Nitish Kumar can stem the BJP tide.
No other leader knows how the Hindi heartland of India functions in terms of the real politic as Nitish. It is not about development. It is about how to keep the MLAs in line, carve out the cake, and keep the cherry for yourself. That is what Bihar, or for that matter Maharashtra, is teaching us. The Congress leaders wearing black and walking about in the Central Vista — drastically deconstructed and reconstructed under their very noses — in protest against the ED’s interrogation of Sonia Gandhi or the ED sealing a part of the National Herald — should be taking the first plane to Patna for special tutorials in survival at Nitish’s feet. Indeed, if the Opposition had someone as wily as Nitish in states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, India would be a slightly different place than the one it is now. A place that is not necessarily better, but reassuringly familiar. A place like Bihar. Nitish’s India. Between this and the dream of a majoritarian superpower, what’s the choice? Meditate before you speak.
(C P Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal)