The uncharacteristic Nitish Kumar of 2020

The Nitish Kumar one knows isn’t the Nitish Kumar one sees in these elections. Exigencies of politics have taken a toll on the 69-year-old chief minister of Bihar. He could be pungent in his attacks on political adversaries but was never uncivil or out of step with propriety.

A few of his remarks in the campaign are emblematic of an idiom quite alien to what one would associate with him. Egregious by his standards was his allusion to Lalu Prasad’s large family. No vision for society’s development can be expected, he averred, from those who lacked faith in daughters and have parented eight-nine children in the quest for a son. The incarcerated Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) helmsman has nine children — seven daughters and two sons, including Tejashwi Yadav, the RJD’s chief ministerial face who’s a big draw at public rallies.

Compared to Lalu Prasad’s rustic flourish that often qualified as malarkey, Kumar came across as the best finished product of the social justice movement. Barring the recent aberrations, he has been a sort of Amol Palekar in an arena crowded by theatrically vociferous competitors. What set him apart was his political etiquette. That’s why perhaps his “apne baap se poocho” retort to young voters on Prasad’s development record left a jarring note.

Youngest though among his peers from the socialist school, Kumar bore in comparison the maturity of an elder. Erudition was his strength, the economy with words a salience that saw him spotless in the dust and grime of politics. Curt maybe he was at times — but never crass.

A case in point is the period when he refused to engage with Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 elections for which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had named the latter as its prime ministerial pick. He was more cerebral than combative in his opposition to the BJP’s newly anointed mascot. Kumar shone as the fact-checker on Modi’s speech at the much-hyped November 11, 2013, public meeting in Patna. He corrected the gaffes without getting personal: “The BJP has amazing grasp of history. They should know that Chandragupta was of Maurya dysnasty, not Gupta dynasty.” Showcasing Bihar as the cradle of power, learning and culture, Modi had said the Gupta dynasty was reminiscent of Chadragupta’s rajneeti. He confused Taxila for Vikramshila to wrongly locate in Bihar the ancient seat of learning which actually is in Pakistan. Kumar corrected him on that and another fact of history: Modi’s praise of the Biharis for having stopped Alexander’s victory march was misplaced as the Greek warrior never crossed the Ganges.

Yet, Kumar lost the Lok Sabha polls badly. Together with its allies, the BJP got over 30 of the 40 seats, with the fragmented Opposition, including the RJD-Congress-Janata Dal (United) winning the rest. What resurrected Kumar was the alliance he stitched together with Lalu Prasad for the 2015 assembly elections. The ground he salvaged rehabilitated Kumar as a potentially acceptable national alternative to Modi. But the JD (U)-RJD romance faded fast. The straw that broke the camel’s back was Tejashwi Yadav’s refusal to quit as deputy chief minister on being charge-sheeted for graft, not to mention Lalu Prasad’s incessant taunts about where the real power lay in the coalition regime.

Impatient with this impertinence, Kumar rocked the RJD boat, swinging to the other extreme to join Modi. There has been no turning back since for the chief minister whose 2017 about-turn unsettled many who had viewed his 2013 defiance of the BJP as a “giant leap” in popular psyche, if not the national stage.

Like his pragmatic alliance with Lalu Prasad, the Modi-Nitish Kumar covenant was a classic case of politics making strange bedfellows, especially when the BJP he knew was the one led by AB Vajpayee. Amid mounting anti-incumbency, he’s now fighting with his back to the wall, a condescending BJP saying it will let him be CM even if his party returned with a reduced strength. That must be deeply unnerving for the man on whose desk the buck has stopped for a decade-and-a-half in Bihar.

The worry shows in Kumar’s irritability, his immoderate narrative that doesn’t sit well with his trademark elegance. In the past, he used to keep his cool and his wise counsel in the face of the worst provocations, including the personal darts Rabri Devi hurled at him in the 2010 assembly polls. The vintage Nitish Kumar that one knew had left an abiding impression at a meeting with select journalists in the lead-up to the 2105 elections, a year after his humiliating defeat in the parliamentary polls, which brought the BJP to power. Among the invitees was an Aam Aadmi Party functionary who made some caustic remarks about the prime minister. Not the least amused, Nitish was empathically dismissive: “Let them talk, it’s their language, not mine…..”

These days, it seems like a once-upon-a-time story.

The views expressed are personal

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