Bihar’s political milieu wears a new look. On 28 January 2024, Nitish Kumar, who was considered the architect-in-chief of opposition unity, switched sides and was sworn in as the chief minister of Bihar for the ninth time, in alliance with the BJP. A banner on Patna’s roads now reads: “Lav-Kush aur Parshuram ki sarkar hai, Bihar mein ab bahar hai” (Bihar is blossoming, the government of Lav-Kush and Parshuram is now in place).
Lav-Kush and Parshuram are mythological characters of Hindu scriptures. The Ramayana says Lav and Kush were sons of Ram. Parshuram is said to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, who freed the earth of the Kshatriyas as many as 21 times. Lav-Kush and Parshuram are now political symbols. Lav and Kush represent the Kurmi and the Koeri castes respectively while Parshuram is a symbol of the Bhumihar-Brahmin castes.
A new narrative is being woven, betraying the strategy the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition has chosen to win the upcoming Sabha elections. The idea is to break the unity of the OBC castes, which was being forged following the caste survey that revealed that the OBC castes together constituted not 50 per cent but 63 per cent of the state’s population. But did all this happen suddenly?
We need to revisit the past. Nitish Kumar’s 2022 switch led to a change sweeping through political offices. Journalist-turned-politician and Rajya Sabha vice-chairperson Harivansh Narayan Singh, a JD(U) MP, however, continued in office. Neither the BJP nor Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) asked him to quit. He is the same gentleman who had ensured the passage of the three black farm laws in the Rajya Sabha, throwing all Constitutional norms to the wind. Even as Nitish and Narendra Modi attacked each other viciously, Harivansh continued to be in the good books of both of them. Clearly, Nitish wanted to keep a door for return to the BJP open and Narendra Modi, too, did not want to burn his bridges with Nitish. Both were aware of each other’s political standing. Modi knew that a big political victory in Bihar was impossible without the aid of a partner like Nitish. That underscored the importance of Harivansh as a key member of Nitish’s panel of Savarna advisers. This panel has been consistently opposed to the cause of social justice and caste census, because its socio-economic interests are served well in the company of the BJP.
On 23 June last year, during the run-up to the first conclave of opposition parties in Patna, Income Tax department and Enforcement Directorate teams raided many establishments of Ajay Singh alias Karu Singh, the brother-in-law of Nitish’s darling and the then finance minister of the state, Vijay Kumar Chaudhary. Karu Singh is a big-time contractor, executing projects in Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha. He is believed to be a repository of many secrets of the state government. At the time, the word was that the Union Government was using the IT department and the ED to put a spanner in the works of Nitish Kumar, who was trying to unite the opposition. It was also asserted that Nitish wouldn’t cow down.
But the claim proved wide off the mark. Nitish has made it clear that he not only fears Modi but is ready to bow before him. And this time, he has prostrated himself before Modi. Nitish Kumar’s rise in politics is founded on the twin strategies of opposing Lalu and aligning with the BJP. And so even when he broke ranks with the BJP, he still left the lines of communication open. His frequent disillusionments with the BJP have never had any ideological basis. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he is not a social-justice warrior but an adept social engineer. And Nitish’s social engineering complements Modi’s social engineering very well. No wonder BJP is Nitish’s natural home. He flies back to it frequently and is even willing to obliterate his identity for BJP’s sake.
Nitish is probably the only Indian politician who has proved himself wrong – not once but on innumerable occasions. It was not long ago that Nitish had said, “I have no personal ambitions. I desire no position.” He has also been saying, “I will ruin myself rather than joining the BJP. I will prefer to die than to go with the BJP.”
He not only went with the BJP but also accepted the chief minister’s chair. It is now established beyond an iota of doubt that he is loyal to none. After his swearing-in, he told journalists, “Even earlier I was with the BJP. In the interregnum, I strayed elsewhere. Now, I am back where I was. I won’t go anywhere now.” But his statement was not taken seriously by anyone. His argument that “things were not going on well” turned out to be baseless.
His now-former ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), committed a fatal mistake in gauging the real character of Nitish Kumar and has paid the price. Not long ago, Prof Chandra Shekhar, Bihar education minister, had raised some questions on the Ramcharitmanas. Nitish Kumar and his party expressed their displeasure over it. Subsequently, RJD MLA Fateh Bahadur Singh, rejecting the myths propagated by Hinduism, had called for treading the path shown by Jotirao and Savitribai Phule. That had also earned him the displeasure of Nitish Kumar. That was why just before jumping on the BJP bandwagon, Nitish Kumar had changed the portfolio of Chandra Shekhar. It seems that Nitish wanted to gauge how seriously his reservations were taken by the RJD, and he was not satisfied.
RJD national Vice-President Shivanand Tiwari has said, “The entire country saw the way Tejashwi Yadav behaved during the rule of the Mahagathbandhan. He was more subdued than needed so that Nitish Kumar did not get any cause for complaint.”
The RJD made a mistake 17 months ago when it welcomed back Nitish Kumar after he deserted the BJP. It is common knowledge that Nitish is extremely wary of sharing credit for anything with anyone – so much so that he had problems with his closest associate Sushil Kumar Modi on this count.
Nitish was seen as the leading face of the opposition unity against the BJP and he switched sides when the opposition was just beginning to arise from its slumber. Rahul Gandhi, who had launched his Nyaya Yatra from Manipur, was about to enter Bihar and his rally was planned in Purnia. Nitish’s sudden turnaround has not only taken the opposition leaders but even political analysts by surprise. Addressing a rally in Purnia, Rahul Gandhi said, “Nitish takes a U-turn the moment a slight pressure is brought to bear upon him. The parties of our alliance made him conduct a caste census. We had told him clearly that he would have to get a caste census done. Nitish ji was under tremendous pressure from the BJP and he decided to bow to it. But the battle for social justice won’t stop. All of us will fight unitedly. We don’t need Nitish. It is time for an X-ray of India to be conducted. We will know who has what numbers and who has what share. The BJP does not want the country to be X-rayed. It does not want the country to know how many Adivasis, Dalits and OBCs live here. It is not interested in social justice.”
Be that as it may, the agenda of social justice, which Rahul Gandhi underlined and gave a sharp edge to at the Purnia rally, is unpalatable to the BJP and Narendra Modi. That was why after the release of the report of the caste survey in Bihar, Modi said that the opposition was out to divide the country along caste lines and that for him the biggest caste was the poor.
By taking Nitish on board, Narendra Modi has killed two birds with one stone. He wants to prove that the opposition, which is getting united, is a helpless, worthless conglomerate which cannot stop him from coming to power for a third time. Secondly, he has made a BJP victory in Bihar seem plausible.
But will Nitish’s exit blow up the prospects of an opposition unity? Will it now be smooth sailing for the BJP in Bihar? It does not seem so, for his return to the NDA has sparked off a battle within the NDA. Chirag Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha have already made their resentment public. They were almost forced to join the swearing-in ceremony. Chirag was unwilling to fly to Patna from Delhi and Upendra had left Patna. Will this anger persist? The answer to this question is that this time, the BJP will not rub its associates the wrong way for Nitish’s sake. It will, instead, clip the wings of Nitish. In the last Vidhan Sabha elections, Chirag was used to ensure the defeat of Nitish. A similar formula may be applied this time. The objective would be to render Nitish irrelevant.
(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)
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