Nitish Kumar proved his majority in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha on 19 June after his party’s break-up with the BJP. Although the BJP has accused Nitish Kumar of political opportunism and of breaking the 17-year-old alliance – and these are serious charges – now the biggest challenge before Nitish Kumar is how to show to the world that he is a ‘taller secular leader’ than Laloo Prasad Yadav.
It was not an easy task for Nitish Kumar to divorce the BJP on the issue of Narendra Modi but he displayed the courage to accomplish it. Nitish climbing the tree of religious fanaticism, severing its one branch and then scooting before the branch could fall on him, was no mean feat. And he can score some more points by appointing a Muslim as the state’s new Deputy Chief Minister (Dy. CM). Sushil Kumar Modi, a BJP heavyweight and a Vaishya by caste has been holding the position ever since the NDA government was formed in Bihar in the year 2005. But now, Nitish Kumar is under no compulsion. He is the lord of all he surveys. There is no gathbandhan dharma (alliance duty) of appointing a person chosen by someone else as Dy. CM.
However, the fact is that Muslims will not begin flocking to Nitish Kumar’s camp only because he has abandoned the BJP on the question of Modi. Not entirely in jest, it is often said in Bihar that Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar are cousins. Stories recalling Nitish showering lavish praises on Modi have become the staple fare of newspapers published from Bihar these days. Photographs of the duo exuding mutual cordiality are also finding place in the columns of the newspapers. Not only the BJP but even the members of Nitish’s close circle are fanning this impression.
It Nitish names a Muslim as his Dy. CM, he will be killing not two, not three but five birds with one stone. He will break Laloo’s MY (Muslim plus Yadav) vote bank, win the confidence of the Muslims and give an extra sheen to his secular image. That will make Laloo fall flat on his face and Nitish will emerge a winner in the game which Ramvilas Paswan has been playing for quite some time now by demanding that Bihar should have a Muslim chief minister.
Muslims constitute nearly 16 per cent of Bihar’s population. That means that the state Vidhan Sabha should have 38–40 Muslim members. But their number has never exceeded 20–25. As for the Lok Sabha, barely 4–5 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in the state go to Muslims. In 2009, Bihar returned three Muslims to the Lok Sabha. The corresponding figures for earlier general elections were 5 (2004), 3 (1999) , 4 (1996), 6 (1991), 3 (1989), 6 (1984), 4 (1980), 2 (1977), 3 (1971), 2 (1967), 2 (1962), 3 (1957) and 3 (1952). As far as giving tickets to Muslims is concerned, RJD and LJP have been ahead of other parties. (All figures from senior journalist Shrikant’s booklet Bihar ke Musalman: Rajneeti Mein Hissedari [Muslims in Bihar: Share in Politics]).
The low representation of Muslims in the Vidhan Sabha and the Lok Sabha indicates that the community still lacks political consciousness. Its economic condition is worse still. According to the 2001 census, 51.5 per cent Muslims are agricultural labourers. The Sacchar committee report and Census 2001 show that only 42 per cent Muslims are literate. The percentage of Muslims in government jobs is a mere 7.6. In the education department, they hold only 12.3 per cent of the posts.
The Muslim vote bank was exploited to the hilt in the wake of the demolition of Babri mosque. Laloo Prasad stopped Advani’s rath, arrested him and earned his secular badge overnight. Now, the question is whether Nitish Kumar will emerge as the champion of secularism by stopping Narendra Modi’s PM juggernaut. Nitish Kumar has managed to reduce the pressure on himself by parting ways with Narendra Modi’s BJP. But when Modi’s Hindutva Rath thunders through Bihar, how will Nitish Kumar stop him? Nitish had also played a role in the arrest of Advani but Laloo cornered the entire credit. Nitish is still nursing that wound (See Shrikant’s book Chitthiyon kee Rajneeti [Politics of Letters], Vani Prakashan, New Delhi). Now, Nitish may face the same challenge once again.
Nitish Kumar fears that Narendra Modi and Sushil Modi’s base among the Extremely Backward Classes (EBC) may dent his support there. Laloo will do the rest. The EBC population of Bihar is 35 per cent. In an effort to appease EBCs, Nitish had given reservation to them in panchayats in 2010. That brought him dividends too. Now, the BJP wants to usurp the EBC vote bank in the name of Modi’s caste (Ghanchi, equivalent to Teli in Bihar).
Nitish Kumar is currently stationed at a political crossroads. As I said in the beginning, he should appoint a Muslim as Dy. CM. That will not only help him politically but would also give a boost to the democratic functioning in the state. Nitish has one more option. He can take the wind out of Narendra Modi’s sails by naming an EBC as his Dy. CM. This will not be a bad choice for him either. His ultimate priority should be to save his fortress in Bihar from collapsing. But, if he tries to appease the upper castes, which are leaning towards the BJP, by appointing a Bhumihar, Rajput or Brahmin leader as his deputy, he would only be fuelling a ‘counter-revolution’ – something for which his regime has earned notoriety. If he does this, he will lose whatever little confidence the OBCs and EBCs still repose in him. He will fall between two stools.
Published in the July 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine