The Reverse Swing

Why Nitish’s tactical choices put paid to his efforts
The Reverse Swing
Manoj Sinha
The Reverse Swing
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could...

—Robert Frost

Notwithstanding the fact that a web of roads has been woven in Bihar over the last eight years, its chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has failed to pick the smoothest one politically. Being unable to travel all of them together, he has ended up choosing a bumpy path on which his election ‘rath’ has broken down repeatedly. Unlike his many yatras of the past, his election caravan is stuck.

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If the poll pundits are today ruling out a good performance from the JD(U), it’s because of a series of actions by Nitish over a period of time. No longer is he being credited for the roads he built, nor is the media treating him as its darling. It’s not too difficult to understand why Nitish is not getting returns for the work he has done. Shaibal Gupta, member-secretary of the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), Patna, says Nitish headed a “coalition of extremes”. Not only were parties with different views­—the BJP and the JD(U)—sharing power, Nitish even tried to bring the upper castes as well as extremely backward castes and Mahadalits under one umbrella. This was unheard of and no easy job: one side was with the Ranvir Sena, the other with the CPI (Maoists).

His government created new quotas and also tried to shake up the rural structures. In urban and rural local bodies, reservation for women was raised from 33 to 50 per cent. EBCs were then given 20 per cent. Already, 16 per cent were marked for Dalits. So only 14 per cent seats were for non-Dalit, non-EBC males. Then he announced the Bandopadhyay commission to empower sharecroppers, as in West Bengal. The report was submitted in 2009, but the very next year, a kisan mahapanchayat in Patna voiced resistance to the recommendations and many of his own party leaders aligned with the movement. Nitish was forced to retreat. He then declared 18 of the 22 Dalit subcastes as Mahadalits. Later Pasis and Dhobis were added to the list. Followers of Ravidas too were added, leaving out only the Paswans. Castes affected by these moves were upset, but they continued to vote for the Nitish-led NDA for they didn’t want a return of the Laloo-Rabri regime. But the moment Nitish split from the BJP, the affected castes changed their mind. The agrarian upper and intermediate castes were anyway pro-BJP and now the Paswans were going over too, fracturing Nitish’s grand caste coalition. And it’s his own actions from which this flowed.

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By 2009, Nitish started observing that his move to empower the depressed castes and landless classes had not been received well by the landed. He suddenly remembered the 16.5 per cent Muslims in his state. So one fine morning, on June 12, 2010, he cancelled dinner with the top brass of the BJP, including Narendra Modi, who were in Patna for the party’s national executive. There was a contradiction in this: Advani and Narendra Modi had been put up at state guest houses and were in fact state guests, but the CM did not meet them. The BJP bigwigs swallowed the humiliation. A week later, Nitish returned the Rs 5 crore the Gujarat government had donated to the Kosi flood relief fund of August 2008. Still the JD(U)-BJP alliance continued and the combine won a record 206 seats out of 243 seats in the assembly election held in Oct-Nov 2010.

But the crack was too deep to be repaired. Nitish had travelled too far down his chosen tactical route—return was impossible. After the June 16, 2013, split with the BJP, Nitish was seen to have lost the magic touch—he certainly lost the formidable propaganda machinery that came with the BJP. He became vulnerable. Some Muslims, who voted for him in 2009 and 2010, did so as they did not have the NaMo factor in mind then. So Nitish’s gamble of wooing 16.5 per cent Muslims to compensate for the loss of upper castes did not work. When the Modi juggernaut rolled in, Muslims were reminded of Laloo’s role in arresting Advani and halting his rath yatra. Hundreds of bridges built since 2005 have failed to reduce the social gaps that are the reality of the state.

Based in Patna, Soroor Ahmed is a columnist with The Telegraph

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