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October 11, 2013

Nitish Kumar: Birth Of A New Secular

[From my column Obviously Opaque in the UTS Voice, 16-30 September.]

Nitish Kumar must be a happy man now. He has all the reasons to be one, many of them not of his own making but thrown at him by his rivals.

His ‘secular’ credentials, to begin with, are now engraved in indelible ink in the annals of political history of India. The fact that he achieved the feet by extracting an acceptable ‘secular’ leader out of Lal Krishna Advani is miraculous to say the least. Think of it. You will concede that extracting a secular person out of someone responsible for perennially scarring the body politic of the nation with sectarian hatred is no mean task.
Nitish Kumar would know it better. He knew that Lalu Yadav, his mentor turned bête noir, had established his secular credentials by reining in the Rathyatrai whose ‘yatra’ had left a trail of blood and communal enmity behind and unceremoniously packing him off to Samastipur Jail. Turning the chief architect of the Ram Janbhoomi Movement that culminated into demolition of centuries old Babri Mosque into a harmless elder is an image makeover best of personal stylists would dread of even attempting. Nitish Kumar did it. He did it with aplomb by making a devil out of Narendra Modi, the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Bhartiya Janata Party and throwing his, and his party’s weight behind Advani , disgruntled and disgusted with this elevation.

Snapping a 17 year old alliance would not have come easy. Remember that the alliance had achieved the seemingly impossible feat of toppling Lalu Yadav and his Rashtriya Janata Dal’s almost invincible regime and the decision looks like one that defies reason. It does though only for the uninitiated and untrained eyes those have always seen Bihar through a prism of prejudice. It would baffle only those who have seen, and known, Bihar from a distance.

Nitish Kumar is certainly not one of them. He has seen Lalu Yadav building his undefeatable fort by forging a seemingly unbreakable alliance between Muslims and Other Backward Classes (OBCs, read castes) led by the Yadavas. He has, then, dismantled it brick by brick by forging an almost unimaginable alliance of his own. He did it by first, exacting a rift between the OBCs and bringing the differences, both economic and sociopolitical, between them in open.

Bihar, under his leadership, had seen the long in the coming process of the most deprived within the deprived communities standing up for their rights even if against the very same people they should had been naturally and spontaneously aligned with. His Bihar would be the Bihar that would recognize the Most Backward Classes (MBCs) and would offer them their long denied due. The fact that most of the offers would never materialize into concrete action is beside the point. Seldom do Indian politicians translate their promises into action, don't they? Does this ever stop their people rallying behind them?

Having the MBCs solidly behind him he had then added the upper caste voters to his kitty through his alliance with the BJP. An impossible alliance, one must concede. But then, nothing really is impossible in politics that is mobilized more my one’s repulsion to a perceived enemy than his/her own interests. Upper Castes of Bihar had hated Lalu Yadav like none before. They were bound to. He had brokne into their citadel and dethroned them. They were looking at an opportunity to hit back.

Nitish gave them that opportunity. He was very careful, though, while doing that. He knew that they can never be relied upon. He knew that they would be the first to ditch him if a situation arises. He knew that despite momentarily being with him, their disdain for the people they referred to as ‘lower castes’ was not gone. He knew that they were a resentful lot and would always be conspiring to topple him and reinstate one of their own ilk.

Nitish Kumar had seen the unbecoming of Chandrababu Naidu, another regional Chatrap, because of his alliance with the BJP. He knew that the Muslims of Andhra Pradesh had never forgiven Naidu for aligning himself with a party so openly antagonistic to the community. He knew that the community has not forgotten the pogrom inflicted on it in 2002. He knew that Muslims understood the devious designs behind ‘Topi-secularism’ of Narendra Modi whose disdain for wearing the skullcap was combined with a almost sickening desire of skullcap wearing Muslims attend his rallies. They knew the humiliation of being compared to a ‘puppy’ crushed by a speeding car.

Nitish Kumar had learnt his lessons. He knew that he cannot afford to burn his bridges with the Muslims. He did not. Quite on the contrary, he continuously endeavored to prove that despite his alliance with the BJP he was secular to the core. He ignored Modi in meetings. He shooed away Modi, literally, by forcing BJP to keep him away from electoral canvassing in Bihar. He scoffed at him at the drop of a hat. He had achieved a certain respect within the community. Okay, he had at least done away with the hatred that might had come his way because of the alliance with BJP.

He had earned his secular certificate and he was not ready to let it go down the drain. He did not. His message to the Muslims was loud and clear, the rationale behind his alliance was the common hatred towards Lalu Yadav and not the divisive agenda of the BJP.

The initial responses to his swearing ties with such a longstanding friend were not very encouraging. Surveys after surveys hinted at the plummeting popularity of his government. The upper caste voters whose praise for him bordered at sycophancy till the other day were spitting venom against him now. Unfortunately for Nitish, there was no visible en masse shift of Muslim voters towards his party. The upper caste voters standing solidly behind BJP might had been a chink in his armour, and Lalu Yadav, the ever enthusiastic politician, was not to let this opportunity pass by. This, after all, could have been his only shot back at power.

It is just that it was not to happen. The court case in the infamous fodder scam was nearing its end in the Central Bureau of Investigation’s special court. The Supreme Court, in another widely welcome yet overreach of its powers, had ordered that the elected members would lose their seats immediately at conviction unlike earlier when they enjoy powers till the pendency of their appeals in the higher courts. The last hope of his, and others like him facing conviction was an ordinance cleared by the Union Cabinet that sought to nullify the order. Then came Rahul Gandhi into the picture. Rather, he encroached into it by tearing the ordinance, literally and terming it a complete nonsense. The act had sealed his fate.

No idea if the act had anything to do with Nitish Kumar’s gradually increasing bonhomie with the Congress. No idea if it had anything to do with Rahul Gandhi’s reported anger over Lalu Yadav’s refusal against forging an electoral alliance with the Congress during last assembly elections in Bihar.

What is clear is the fact that Bihar is not going to have an opposition, forget a credible one, for a while now and that is certainly not a good scene for democracy. Nitish Kumar won't be complaining though. Why would he? He is the ‘secular’ leader despite having been the most trusted ally of BJP for a full 17 years. He is the ‘secular’ leader despite being really close to his ‘Advaniji.’ He is ‘the’voice of the downtrodden and the marginalized despite having the unflinching support of the feudal upper castes of Bihar for almost two decades. And then, there seems to be no one capable enough to take on him for being all this together.

Emboldened, Nitish has already embarked upon his next course of action. He has slammed the corporate for getting into political discourse and siding with an individual (read Modi). Taking on the corporates, now that’s almost unimaginable in post-liberalisation India, isn’t it? Remember almost all of central government lined up to meet Mukhesh Ambani when he visited Delhi if you doubt that.

I, however, have my doubts for Nitish Kumar and his politics intact. They must be for I have not seen the lives of the impoverished masses of Bihar changing for any better despite all the growth stories told to us. They must be for I cannot believe a politician so adept at forging impossible alliances between sworn enemies even while causing rifts between spontaneous allies.

That does not deny the dark horse that Nitish Kumar is. I won't be surprised if BJP ends up supporting him as Prime Minister if such a situation emerges in 2014.

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