Nitish says goodbye

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  • Published 18.05.14
Nitish Kumar

New Delhi, May 17: Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s resignation this afternoon is probably the first of many provincial tremors Narendra Modi’s thumping takeover of Delhi may trigger.

Even though Nitish has not recommended dissolution of the Assembly, it is unlikely the BJP, the chief Bihar Opposition, would want to dabble in the mess of installing an alternative government rearranging the current floor arithmetic; they’d rather go for a fresh mandate, seeking to encash the favour of voter-sentiment a second time.

Bihar could well find itself clubbed with a string of other states where elections are either due soon or become a political necessity in view of the radical shift in the central balance of power.

Delhi is a classic case in point; the Assembly remains in suspended animation following the resignation of Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP government. The sense is the BJP would seek to break the deadlocked numbers by pushing for fresh polls.

Similarly, state governments in Jharkhand and Uttarakhand might be impacted by the ground-shift of the Lok Sabha mandate from both states. Maharashtra, where the Congress-NCP combine was routed, Jammu and Kashmir, where the ruling NC-Congress alliance was trounced, and Haryana are due for polls later this year.

The shape and colour of several key state Assemblies are set to change; given the current drift, it is likely many more states will take on the BJP hue and fast-track the party’s expansion.

Nitish Kumar grossly misread the sense of the ground in Bihar, but he has read the sense of the mandate right.

Even though this was a Lok Sabha election, the rejection of the Janata Dal (United) was so pervasive it demanded from the incumbent a renewal of lease to rule. In removing himself from power — “goodbye kar diya” as he put it — Nitish has submitted himself to the required, and uphill, enterprise of seeking fresh endorsement from the electorate. Equally, by opting out of the leadership of his legislature party, he has challenged potential dissidents and played at renewing internal ratification.

“I am under no illusion this mandate is for the BJP,” he told journalists. “I own moral responsibility for our defeat and wish the BJP best luck in fulfilling the many dreams it has fed the people.”

Nitish’s moral ownership, though, could well have been prodded by swivelling political imperatives.

The JD(U)’s drubbing had taken the lid off murmurs of internal dissent, and party ranks had begun to openly question both Nitish’s style of functioning and his political judgement.

On the Assembly floor, he survived by dint of support from a handful of Independent and Congress MLAs. The BJP, forced last summer by Nitish from the treasury into the Opposition benches, was clearly heading for his jugular. Surviving in government would have become a daily grind, an effort whose only consequence would have been diminishing returns.

Nitish has ended what was, for the most part, a refreshing era of change and upgradation in Bihar, and opened for himself an arduous road ahead. Many, including those within his party, would hold him alone responsible for this testing pass — that single move last June to fly in the face of Narendra Modi’s ascent as NDA spearhead and sever his 17-year alliance with the BJP.

“It was a fatal error,” a member of Nitish’s dissolved cabinet told The Telegraph. “It may have been ideologically dear to Nitish Kumar but it proved politically suicidal. The consequences of that one wrong but deliberate step have been brought upon all of us now.”

In sum, the wrath of his rejection of Modi has come to visit him. “We are in a shambles,” the former minister conceded, wistfully. “And at the moment we do not even seem to have a clue how we will pick our way out of this devastation.”

What the minister said today was a sentiment that had begun to echo from the ground very soon after Nitish broke the alliance over Modi last summer: “Why did Nitish destabilise a stable alliance and a good government? Only because he had a problem with Narendra Modi?” That call resounded during the Lok Sabha campaign, and stamped itself on the Bihar mandate.

In the eight years that Nitish Kumar led the NDA alliance in Bihar — it was returned with a two-thirds endorsement in the November of 2010 — the state witnessed widespread and exemplary changes in form and style of governance.

Within three years of ousting the Lalu-Rabri raj, whose trademark was rampant dereliction, the Nitish-led government had begun to pull Bihar out of its deficits. Crime was contained, institutions were resurrected and a semblance of governance restored, development began to manifest itself in new stretches of roads and bridges began to appear, functionality was restored to schools and hospitals.

Nitish caught national notice, bagged trophies for work done. During the last five years of his reign, Bihar achieved a sustained average growth rate above 12 per cent.

Nitish made himself indispensable to the alliance, he dictated terms to the BJP. To the extent that he did not permit Narendra Modi to enter the campaign field in Bihar and forced the BJP high command to put up with that condition.

But as Modi surged to the top of the BJP following his third successive success in Gujarat in 2012, friction mounted. Nitish pushed with conditions that the BJP brass found itself unable and unwilling to accept. Last June, he went for broke, stating deep ideological aversion to Modi, though never naming him.

Part of Nitish’s gamble was based on his assessment that Bihar’s Muslims, non-Yadav backwards and Mahadalits, all of whom he had wooed with aggressive positive discrimination initiatives, would back him. The 2014 election proved that assessment drastically wrong; the message delivered by the electorate was exactly what Narendra Modi had demanded of them — rap Nitish hard.

Today’s resignation was, in good measure, Nitish’s acknowledgement of the rap. How or if he is able to recover and revive is the future story of a state that celebrated Nitish’s work ethic, but not his politics.