New Delhi: Nitish Kumar has been chief minister of Bihar almost continuously for some fifteen years largely in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Narendra Modi and he are expected to share the stage at a Patna rally in March that should compete for scale, grandeur and power projection with Mamata Bannerjee’s opposition Calcutta Brigade Parade Ground show earlier this month. Nitish was actively considered for prime minister by a section of the anti-Narendra Modi BJP in the 2014 general election run-up but the majority to the BJP put paid to Nitish’s hopes and ambitions. Winning a subsequent assembly election in alliance with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress, Nitish Kumar did an about-turn in months and returned to the National Democratic Alliance fold damaging his image. The RJD under incarcerated Lalu’s youngest son, Tejaswi, is slowly winning the psych war against Nitish and the growing national opposition to BJP rule could further undermine his administration in Bihar. Nitish Kumar would make a more worthy prime minister in 2019 than several of the leading contenders but he does not appear to have much of a chance anymore. Since he is a capable administrator who has turned around Bihar’s fortune and is liberal and honest to boot, is there any way he can revive his flagging national career?

Nitish Kumar’s tragedy is that he is not a political risk-taker like Naveen Patnaik of Orissa who also rose in an opposition Congress-ruled state with the aid and association of the Bharatiya Janata Party. When he realized that dependence on the BJP would hurt his long-term prospects, he ditched the national party and took the counter-intuitive path of going alone. Nitish Kumar, however, chose not to follow Patnaik’s example and this has made him a prisoner of his allies. When he swallowed his pride and humiliatingly aligned with the RJD, it repudiated Nitish’s central principle of opposing Lalu’s goonda raj. And when he returned to the NDA fold much weakened and with his image dented, he could not oppose the BJP’s communalization of Bihar’s politics and society. Seeing its own plummeting fortunes in the rest of the country, the BJP central leadership of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah will definitely put the squeeze on Lok Sabha seats to contest on its principal Bihar ally, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal - United. How much can he compromise without killing himself politically?

There is a way out for Nitish Kumar provided he can take the risk. This is to do what Naveen Patnaik did in 2009 by daring to snap ties with the BJP and to go alone. Bihar is closed for Nitish Kumar after the present term. He does not have a second-line leadership in the JD-U and he is far too old to contest Tejaswi Yadav in the prime of youth joined with Lalu’s cunning and enterprise. Nitish Kumar’s best bet is to fight the Lok Sabha election alone in all Bihar seats and thus position himself as a consensus prime minister choice alongwith others such as Mamata Bannerjee, Mayawati and N. Chandrababu Naidu. Compared to them, he has a better track record, and he would also be an option for outside BJP support should neither Narendra Modi nor Nitin Gadkari (part of the BJP’s plan B) cobble together the numbers. Taking the risk of fighting alone would also wash Nitish Kumar’s perceived sin of deserting allies.

How much chance does Nitish have going alone in Bihar? Since the aim is a decent Lok Sabha tally to put Nitish Kumar in the prime minister race, this is well within his capacity. Having sheltered behind allies and depended on them to do the heavy lifting, Nitish Kumar has seriously underestimated his own strengths. While he may not have the powerful on-ground presence of the BJP or the RJD, Nitish Kumar has still come to occupy the positive consciousness of Bihar. Leave aside the prohibition policy which is a flop, Nitish Kumar has laid the foundations for Bihar’s economic recovery. Since he became chief minister in 2005, Bihar has averaged good state GDP growth rates despite dampeners like reference year changes and demonetization. Bicycle and meal programmes and supply of uniforms have sharply reduced school dropout rates among girls. Flight of capital, middle class professionals and wealth creators to other parts of the country when organized kidnapping became a core feature of Lalu Prasad’s criminal rule have also shown modest reversals under Nitish.

There are, however, legacy issues like the freight equalization policy, for example, which will take longer to reverse. The inequity of poor north Bihar versus richer South Bihar and Bihar’s concentration of wealth, services and manufacturing such as they exist in the south and in Patna would also require long-term remedies administered by a benign Centre. Bihar would unite behind Nitish Kumar if he becomes a serious prime minister candidate. For that, he has to risk the Lok Sabha election alone. A chasm is opening behind him with both the RJD and the BJP determined to reduce him to a cipher. Nitish Kumar can either move forward or falter and fail overwhelmed by personal fears. Rating on his Bihar performance: Five out of 10.

To be continued...

Please read “2019”, “2019 - 2,” “2019 - 3” and “2019 - 4” here, here, here and here.