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The Tragedy Of Being Nitish Kumar

Sutanu Guru on how an 'icon' of law & order and good governance has become a hapless victim of coalition politics

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One of the better known journalists when it comes to coverage of Bihar is Sankarshan Thakur of The Telegraph. He has acquired an interesting reputation for his duels with numerous “bhakts” who accuse him of being prejudiced in favour of Lalu Yadav and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. But he was one of the first to raise not just eyebrows, but also alarms after Mohammed Shahabuddin, the strongman of Siwan in Bihar and a trusted lieutenant of Lalu Yadav walked out of jail in Bhagalpur and went home in a cavalcade of 400 plus SUVs. Thakur, who has written biographies of both Lalu and Nitish wondered on social media platforms like Twitter if Nitish now resembles the hapless Dr Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India for ten years in the UPA regime.

Every time a scam broke out in the UPA era, Manmohan Singh would blame coalition compulsions instead of taking decisive steps to stop the rot. The distinguished economist soon became a butt of jokes and even senior Congress leaders treated him with contempt camouflaged as courtesy because they knew the real power center was Sonia Gandhi, who could not, or would not become prime minister. Something similar seems to be happening in Bihar at the moment. People in Bihar sense that the real power center is Lalu Yadav, the man who cannot become chief minister because of his conviction in a criminal case. His younger son and heir apparent Tejasvi Yadav is the deputy chief minister. Lalu and his party the RJD have more MLAS than Nitish and his party the JD(U). While Nitish is determined to emerge as a messiah and a rival to Narendra Modi for 2019, there have been disturbing reports of the grim law and order situation in the state. Nitish and his supporters claim that prohibition has actually led to a big decline in crime. Alas, no one seems to believe him.

Between 2005 and 2013, Nitish Kumar had acquired a formidable and well justified reputation as the leader of a BJP-JD(U) alliance who had actually transformed Bihar and brought and end to a 15 year old reign of Lalu Yadav and his wife Rabri Devi that was notorious across India as “jumgle raj”. Since he became chief minister in 2005, there was a visible improvement in law and order. He gets credit for setting up special courts that punished the guilty in the 1989 Bhagalpur riots. He got credit for sending many “bahubalis”, polite term for gangsters behind bars and ending the “kidnapping” industry. Shahabuddin was one of the more prominent ones sent behind bars. He was convicted in two criminals and sent to jail in 2005, the year Nitish Kumar became chief minister. For almost 10 years, Nitish and Lalu traded barbs and insults. But in 2013, when it became clear that Narendra Modi would replace L. K. Advani as the leader of the BJP, Nitish turned bitter and broke an almost two decade old alliance with the BJP. He was humiliated in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But then he came up with the masterstroke of forging an electoral alliance with old enemy Lalu Yadav for the 2015 assembly elections.

Electorally, the “masterstroke” did payoff as the new alliance swept into victory and Nitish became chief minister for a third successive term. But as subsequent events have shown, this is not the Nitish of the previous decade who promised and delivered good governance. This Nitish looks hapless as goons once again flourish and the kidnapping industry makes a triumphant comeback. Ironically, his signature offering-prohibition-will inevitably lead to more powerful criminal mafias. In fact, his reputation as a good governance and law & order icon is already in shambles. To add to his woes, Mohammed Shahabuddin gave him a glimpse of what lies ahead. Soon after his release, the “strongman” thundered in words that could be construed as: “ Nitish Kumar is a chief minister of circumstances. He was not my leader. He is not my leader. He won’t be my leader in the future” He publicly acknowledged Lalu as his Boss.

Nitish Kumar can blame no one but himself for allying with Lalu Yadav. He managed to retain power. But he will probably end up paying a cost that would shatter his political dreams as well as legacy.