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    VIEW: Nitish Kumar, the master of tightrope walk

    VIEW: Nitish Kumar, the master of tightrope walk

    VIEW: Nitish Kumar, the master of tightrope walk
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    By Vikas Pathak   IST (Updated)

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    No political decision of Nitish Kumar is final. We may again see him doing a volte-face in another two years, but all these U-turns permit him to retain his hold over his social constituency and remain the fulcrum of Bihar politics even when there are two parties that are singly more powerful than the JD (U).

    There is hardly any doubt that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s decision to ally with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress and break his alliance with the BJP, is a jolt for the BJP and a shot in the arm for the RJD.
    Over the years, Kumar has positioned himself as the fulcrum around which sections of the extremely backward castes converge electorally. Left to themselves, the RJD and the BJP are both more powerful than Nitish Kumar’s JD (U). However, as recent years have shown, neither is perhaps capable of winning a state assembly election in Bihar on its own.
    However, add Kumar, and sections of non-Yadav backward castes -- including Kumar’s caste, Kurmis, and quite a few other backward castes – go to whichever alliance he is with. In this sense, he has till now been able to carve a transferrable vote that can make any of the alliances win.
    And he has used this ability deftly at least since 2013-14. The JD (U) performed badly in the Lok Sabha polls in 2014 after its break with the BJP but proved to be the trump card of alliance politics when it helped the RJD trounce the BJP in the 2015 assembly polls when the BJP was looking invincible and most pollsters had predicted its win despite the pan-OBC alliance that Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar had together sought to carve.
    Bihar Assembly Currently
    PartySeats
    RJD79
    BJP77
    JD(U)45
    Cong19
    Left16
    With this, a diminished Kumar proved his centrality to government formation in Bihar. However, he did not allow the stronger RJD to call the shots, withdrawing from the alliance and forming a government with the BJP in 2017.
    With Kumar announcing that the NDA in Bihar has again split and heading straight for the residence of Rabri Devi, he has not allowed the more powerful BJP, which has been reaching out to diverse groups via representation in top constitutional posts and tweaking the composition of councils of ministers at the Centre and in states where it is in power, a chance to eye his vote bank.
    No political decision of Nitish Kumar is final. We may again see him doing a volte-face in another two years, but all these U-turns permit him to retain his hold over his social constituency and remain the fulcrum of Bihar politics even when there are two parties that are singly more powerful than the JD (U).
    The BJP’s UP model of social engineering has not been able to outsmart Kumar in Bihar yet, for he is identified in the state as the claimant of the EBC discourse. In UP, the BJP could itself attract growing sections of OBCs and the Scheduled Castes, thus making Mayawati almost irrelevant and denting the Samajwadi Party, the support of Muslims to SP notwithstanding.
    In Bihar, on the contrary, it is Nitish Kumar who brings the non-Yadav OBCs to the NDA. If he quits the NDA, he has a demonstrable ability to transfer those votes to the RJD-JD (U) alliance. In other words, these are till now Kumar’s votes and not the BJP’s votes.
    Kumar assiduously cultivated the image of “Sushasan Babu” – the one who can provide good governance – in his early years as Bihar Chief Minister, thus delegitimising the RJD’s record as “jungle raj” for decades on end. So, the RJD gains in two ways if it allies with Kumar: it shakes off the jungle raj discourse by association and also hopes to add EBC votes to its Yadav-Muslim combine, putting in place a winning combination.
    For the BJP, which has an upper caste core in a state that has witnessed caste hierarchy, skewed land distribution and violence till the 1990s, Kumar brings greater social legitimacy and also chunks of EBC votes.
    This package deal that Kumar offers to both the RJD and the BJP by turns permits him to claim leadership of either alliance, even if his party is a junior partner in both cases.
    However, in the process, Kumar lost some legitimacy in the country and got branded as a turncoat. However, this does not really matter in times when the polity is deeply polarized. Supporters, as well as critics of the BJP, know that Kumar lacks consistency, but looks forward to his joining their camp, as that changes political equations in a large northern state, apart from embarrassing the ‘other side’.
    (Vikas Pathak is a columnist and media educator. The views expressed are his own.)
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