Rereading the latest political biography of the Bihar chief minister in the middle of a contentious general election prompts some serious reflection on the nature of leadership. It is said that the one who leads the orchestra must turn his back to the crowd. But politics is unlike conducting an orchestra and a political leader, more often than not, swims with the tide. Nitish Kumar comes across as a leader who ignores the crowd, rising above it and often swimming against the tide. Does that make him a good or a bad leader, the reader is left wondering.
One of the last gentlemen in Indian politics, Nitish was seduced by Lohia’s socialism, got sucked into the JP agitation in the mid-seventies and gave up an engineering career. He refused to get married till the paltry dowry his father had accepted was returned. He lost the first two elections he contested because of his stubborn refusal to back people belonging to his own caste who were held guilty for a massacre. He neglected his wife for what he believed was a higher calling, public service. He stubbornly kept Narendra Modi away from his side all through his tenure as chief minister, at a time when nobody expected him to do so. And he felt his secular credentials required a parting of ways with the BJP when it became clear that Modi would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Single Man doesn’t throw much light on the troubled relations between Modi and Nitish beyond what is in the public domain.
But neither his alleged ‘appeasement’ of the minorities nor his undoubtedly impressive development record in Bihar were of much help to him as he got a drubbing in the Lok Sabha elections in his home state. Indeed, at this point of time, Nitish Kumar is no longer the CM and is looking at an uncertain political future. And the two adversaries he has spiritedly opposed in the last decade and a half, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Modi, have had the last laugh. The delightful Maithili proverb—‘can people see the bump on their own forehead?’—at the beginning of Sankarshan Thakur’s epilogue acquires a whole new meaning by the time one finishes reading this engrossing book.
Did Nitish oppose Modi because he saw himself as a potential or a better prime minister? Single Man does not throw much light on a troubled relationship beyond what is already in the public domain. The author does ask the question but the self-effacing Bihar CM brushes it off by saying that he has no ambition other than serving Bihar.
There are few Bihar observers who write as engagingly as Sankarshan Thakur. And he does not disappoint, delivering a racy, readable biography of a difficult, reticent subject. There are interesting vignettes about the Bihar CM’s visit to Pakistan and his insistence on visiting Jaulian in Taxila, where Chanakya is believed to have taught; his leaning towards Buddhism and his pronounced distaste for those seeking favour. Thakur, a self-confessed ‘Harry from Harrysburgh’ (Biharis migrating to Delhi from Patna), writes lovingly about the state and its chief minister, though a tad too charitably at times. But one can hardly blame him, for when he does manage to track down Nitish’s oldest childhood friend, all that Munnaji can recall of his days with the future chief minister is, “bahut maza kiye the (We had loads of fun)”.