After a lacklustre career in the 1990s and the first few years of the 21st century, when he remained in the shadow of both friends and foes, Nitish Kumar has now emerged in the full glare of the political spotlight with his name being mentioned as a possible prime minister.
Even if he fails to make it to the very top, he will still be playing a seminal role in redefining the contours of the two major political formations — the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
Yet, few could have imagined that he would gain such prominence when he played a secondary role to Lalu Prasad in Bihar and to George Fernandes at the centre. The basis of these connections was their common membership of the Janata Dal. However, the parting of ways came when Nitish broke away from his old friend, then Bihar chief minister Lalu, to form, first, the Samta party in 1994 and then the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) in 2003.
Although Nitish was a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, he remained a figure in the margins until he was able to consolidate his position in Bihar. He, however, may not have been able to do so but for Lalu’s embroilment in corruption cases and the rise of lawlessness in Bihar.
If the latter had not let Bihar run to seed, Nitish would have remained a bit player if only because his primary base of support, the Kurmis, the caste group to which he belongs, is the smallest of the three major backward castes - Yadavs (making up 13 per cent of Bihar’s population), Koeris (5 per cent) and Kurmis (2.5 per cent).
It was because the Kurmis and Koeris felt that they were not getting their dues under the Yadav-dominated Lalu government that they not only broke away to form the Samta Party, but also reached out to the upper castes (comprising 12-13 per cent) affiliated to the BJP to form an alliance.
The antipathy of the non-Yadav backward castes and the upper castes towards Lalu has been strong enough to enable the now-defunct Samta Party and the JD-U to remain powerful political forces for nearly a decade. However, this lower caste-upper caste combination would not have survived for so long but for Nitish’s amiable personality and administrative capabilities.
A fortuitous combination, therefore, of Lalu’s dismissal of the need for good governance and development as an elitist fad and Nitish’s realisation of the value of precisely these two factors, was responsible for the latter’s success in the 2005 and 2010 elections. However, no less crucial was his ability to crack the MY or Muslim-Yadav combination that Lalu regarded as his trump card.
Since the MY vote bank added up to nearly 30 per cent (Muslims 16.5 per cent, Yadavs 13 per cent) of the population, Lalu was sure of his electoral fortunes, especially when he believed that he would be able to get a fair portion of the 15 per cent Dalit vote via his ally Ramvilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP). However, these calculations sank in the quicksand of Bihar’s descent into anarchy in the 15 years of Lalu and his wife Rabri Devi’s rule.
Since it is the weaning away of sections of Muslims from Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) which contributed to Nitish’s success, his aversion for Narendra Modi is understandable. Considering that Nitish did not even allow the “modern-day Nero”, the Supreme Court’s phrase for Modi, to campaign for the JD(U)-BJP combine in the assembly elections, lest he scared away the Muslims, there was no way that the BJP could have expected him to endorse Modi’s candidature for the prime minister’s post.
It has to be remembered that Nitish has been able to win over at least some of the Muslims despite the BJP’s presence in his government by ensuring that the BJP remains very much a junior partner, even if this displeases the Bhumihars, Rajputs and Banias who constitute the saffron outfit’s main base of support.
In this respect, Nitish can be said to have partly replicated the old Congress electoral base comprising Brahmins, Muslims and Dalits, except that the Dalits are not fully with Nitish. There may be questions, too, about the quantum of Muslim support since there is little doubt that the RJD has retained a fair share.
However, one of Nitish’s achievements has been to tone down the caste antagonism which marked the RJD’s tenure when armed groups of the upper castes, like the Ranbir Sena, were at loggerheads with the senas of the lower castes, creating a mayhem in the countryside. By ensuring that hundreds of these brigands are jailed, Nitish Kumar has pushed the state, which was regarded with derision earlier, to the No 2 position in terms of growth rate.
Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst.