Are you not being a trifle overconfident, I ask the Bihar chief minister tentatively at the end of a long chat. The face of Nitish Kumar, as old as Narendra Modi at 63, but surprisingly boyish despite the stubble and grey hair, creases with a grin. “The only time I was overconfident,” he says, “was in 2004. Pramod Mahajan showed me his war room, with computers and TV screens and I was dazzled.” Since then, he claims, he has learnt to trust his own instinct and direct feedback from people rather than opinion polls and the media. “Since 2004, my calculation has never gone wrong,” he says, but does not reveal what his calculations suggest would be the outcome of the general election. “Abhi to campaign bhi shuru nahin hua. Baksa khulne deejiye; pata chal jayega kisko fayda hua aur kisko nuksaan (The campaign has not started yet; wait for the results and you will know who gained and who lost),” he says, as parting shot. Excerpts from an interview with Uttam Sengupta:
Arvind Kejriwal says the next general election is going to be fought between the Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP. What is your assessment?
I do not see this country polarised between the BJP and AAP. It is a hyper active media which is trying to create this impression. Ground realities, I believe, are very, very different.
You don’t believe the BJP or AAP will benefit the most in the current political situation?
The only certainty is that because of its poor performance, the Congress and the UPA will suffer electoral reverses. In states where the BJP and the Congress find themselves in a direct contest, BJP will benefit. But wherever there is a three-cornered contest, as in Delhi Assembly election, I don’t think BJP can hope to do equally well.
Why does it appear that eastern and southern states are most likely to slow down the BJP?
BJP was never an all-India party. It benefited from the decline of other parties like socialist parties and the Swatantra Party etc. The Election Commission does recognise it as a national party but let us not forget that the highest number of seats it ever won in the Lok Sabha is 182. And that was largely because of the personality of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the disillusionment with the Congress and the allies it managed to attract. Now the BJP is left with only Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal.
Do you regret leaving the NDA and dumping BJP in June last year?
Not for a moment. People were surprised because conventional thinking is that one does not disturb the status quo and risk uncertainty. We put the government at risk. But it was deliberate and we were clear in our mind that this was the right decision. We have had no reason to change our mind.
You still think this was the correct decision?
But will it benefit you politically?
Political decisions are not taken on the basis of profit and loss accounts. The issue was whether it was the right thing to do. And we were convinced that it was. And if you ask me, I am convinced that we will lose nothing. We would have regretted the decision if we had found it difficult to do what we wanted to do. But we have been doing what we wanted. In fact we have found it easier to carry out things after we broke up with the BJP.
You have been close to several national leaders of the BJP. And a section of them was said to be opposed to Narendra Modi being projected as a prime ministerial candidate. Did they ever explain how it happened?
They did not explain anything to me. They did not have to. But several BJP leaders initially felt that this would not happen. Then came a time when they felt it would not be good for the party. Thereafter they realised it was inevitable and after some time, I guess, they felt that it would benefit the BJP.
Do you see the hand of the RSS in it?
What is BJP without the RSS ? It is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh which provides oxygen to the BJP. It is the foundation on which BJP stands. And it is certainly very pro-active this time.
Do you find that the RSS has become stronger in the last few years?
I have no idea. But I certainly do not see as many RSS ‘shakhas’ active as we would see when we were younger.
But political observers feel JD(U) may even find it difficult to field candidates in all the 40 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state?
(Laughs) Those who are suggesting this may have a problem finding suitable candidates. Thankfully, I have no such problem. There is no dearth of good candidates.
The same observers feel Narendra Modi may find a resonance in Bihar as the BJP is projecting him as a leader of the OBCs. What’s your reaction?
I call this arm-chair analysis. To be a leader of the OBCs and espouse their cause, you do not have to take birth in a OBC family. Chaudhary Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, JP, Lohia, Raj Narayan, Madhu Limaye were all champions of the OBC cause but none of them was an OBC. The Jats in UP were deemed to be an upper caste. Birth is not important. You need certain qualities and you have to do the groundwork. You do not suddenly become an OBC leader.
But Narendra Modi in his speeches has been raising issues related to the poor and the OBCs…
I have heard only one of his speeches, the one delivered last October at Patna. And that too because I was leaving for Munger when I received report of the blasts at Gandhi Maidan. So I cancelled my programme for the day and sat down to monitor what was happening. It was in this same room and it was this same TV that you see here. So I heard him speak and watched him weave fanciful stories. I was, therefore, left with no option but to react to his “katha” and set the record straight on politics, geography, history and even stories he concocted involving me. That was the only time I have reacted. As a rule I do not react to others’ speeches.
Do you still maintain that Narendra Modi does not have any feeling for the poor?
I never said that. And I never took anyone’s name. All I said was that whoever becomes the Prime Minister must have feelings for and an understanding of the poor and poorer states. Bharatiya Janata Party leaders reacted vehemently and drew the inference that I was talking about a particular leader. Their inference suggested that they believed the leader lacked those feelings. Now you are also putting words in my mouth and drawing the same inference!
You seem to suggest the possibility of a fractured mandate despite the prevailing anti-Congress mood in the country?
There was a very real possibility of a decisive mandate against the Congress this time. All parties including the Left Front and others were united in opposing the Congress. Please recall the two Bharat Bandhs that were a huge success. But the BJP felt it could alone take on the Congress and took steps that damaged that unity across the political spectrum.
You do not also believe in Arvind Kejriwal’s prediction that an unprecedented political “aandhi” ( storm) is going to sweep everything?
It is an extreme position and I would not like to comment on it. But the fact is that there is no uniform trend in the country. Political ground realities in every state are different and will throw up diverse and different results.
Do you find parallels between the Aam Aadmi Party and the JP Movement of 1974?
You cannot be serious. Those were different times, difficult times. Young people were beaten up, detained, tortured, arrested, put in jail. And still the movement spread like wild fire. There was passion for sacrifice with no reward in sight. Do you find a similar mood in the country today ? It is like chalk and cheese.
But the issues raised by AAP, namely corruption, inflation and good governance seem to be the issues on which the next election is going to be fought ?
They have been issues in every election. People want an efficient, corruption-free government. That is a demand at the centre of every election. There has been systemic failure, also political failure. But even today you will find people’s representatives who lead modest, austere lives and those who like to be driven in flashy cars. There are people who are greedy in society and we need to keep fighting against corruption, even if it leads to your ouster. We have been doing this in Bihar.
What about AAP’s pitch on leaders being more accessible to people?
Political leaders have to be and are accessible to people. I do not know what kind of leaders are inaccessible to people and ground level workers. There are only two ways for leaders to come up. They either take up people’s issues and struggle to get close to people; or given a chance to govern, they get close to people with their governance.
Have you received overtures from the Congress for a pre-poll alliance?
No. This has never been discussed. There has been no talk, ever. And why should there be? Congress, which had a two-third majority in the Bihar Assembly in 1985, is nowhere to be found in the state.
Media reports say Rahul Gandhi is more inclined to an alliance with you?
Must be a figment of the media’s imagination. I have never met him.
But you did say JD(U) would support whoever granted a special status to Bihar?
That was an economic agenda. And the UPA government did find merit in the demand. A committee formed by the Finance Minister, the Raghuram Rajan Committee, went into it and made certain recommendations. We were not entirely satisfied and recorded our dissent. But they unilaterally cancelled the meeting the Finance Ministry had called on November 26. And that was that. They took a political decision to put it in cold storage.
Any possibility of the UPA committing themselves to it now?
Where is the time? Had they followed it up in November and granted the special status, it would have helped the people of Bihar and the JD(U) no doubt. But it would also have helped the Congress find a foothold in Bihar.
So, if an alliance between Congress and JD(U) is ruled out, how would an alliance between Congress and the RJD impact you?
RJD is still a part of the UPA and they have been together in the past. What is new ? I do not see any fresh impact on the election.
What is the possibility that you would return to the NDA?
Even if the BJP secures around 200 seats and forms the government?
It doesn’t matter. We left the NDA on certain issues and there can be no question of going back on it.
And even if the BJP decides to make someone other than Narendra Modi the Prime Minister?
I have already said that the JD(U) has no interest in returning to the NDA and there is no possibility of reconsidering the decision.
Is there a possibility of a Third Front?
If by the third front, you mean a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance, there has been no movement to that direction. We had indeed come together for a conference against communalism in New Delhi, including AIADMK, AGP and JVM. But since then there has been no talk. In the past, Left parties would generally take the initiative in forging such an alliance. But this time they too do not appear to be interested. What is more, a third front may have had a resonance at one time but in this election, it does not appear to be a feasible or attractive proposition. Only the media keeps speculating on it.
There was some discussion between you and Mamata Banerjee, it was reported…
She was indeed serious about it but I had advised her that chief ministers of eastern states should first cooperate on the economy. They should come together and help each other out. This would have worked as a trust building measure and once that happened, it could be converted into a political pressure group. But beyond a few conversations, there has been no movement to that direction.
So, it was never very serious…?
I can’t say that. Political talks are seldom non-serious. But the idea has not taken off so far.
What about Naveen Patnaik?
I have had no discussion with him.
Would you say Bihar would rise above caste in this general election ?
Will Uttar Pradesh or Tamil Nadu rise above caste in this election? Caste plays a role across the country and it is wishful thinking that it will cease to play a role.
Politics, you said last year, was not carried out on Facebook and Twitter. Have you revised your opinion since then?
No! But I do find even old leaders tweeting although they are known to have wondered aloud what “IT-WT” was all about. Friends pressured me into writing a blog and I did write a few posts. But really, there is no substitute to hard work. I believe that in politics you do what you have to in public interest. The rest does not matter. Some people may need social media. I don’t.
A section of commentators feel that while you will have no trouble winning the Assembly election in 2015, you may have a hard time in the Lok Sabha election this year?
I see no logic in the argument. If people do not vote for me in the Lok Sabha, they will not vote for me in the Assembly election too. I do not see why they will reward my work for the Assembly but not for the Lok Sabha. I do not see why they would vote for people who have done nothing all these years but not for JD(U) and our government, which has done so much.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print