The amorality of Nitish Kumar

Once upon a time he was called sushasan babu and had a reputation for being an idealist. Now, he is known to play his cards close to the chest and worships at the altar of power

Charles Assisi

[Prime Minister Narendra Modi being received by Bihar governor Satya Pal Malik and chief minister Nitish Kumar, on his arrival at state capital Patna, on April 10, 2018. Photo by Prime Minister’s Office (GODL-India) / GODL-India]

Bihar will elect its chief minister and next assembly later this month. And the results will be announced on November 10. Coincidentally (perhaps), on the same day as the final match of the IPL will be played out in Dubai. It promises to be a cracker. I say that with much conviction because the first person to point out this coincidence was Sankarshan Thakur, National Affairs Editor at The Telegraph and author of The Brothers Bihari

My conviction is a spillover from a conversation with Thakur a little over two weeks ago after I had reached out to him. That was when he said something very interesting. “In politics, always be careful. Don't try and predict politicians. That’s one fundamental thing I’ve learned. You can analyse them. But don’t predict them in ways that will land you with egg on your face.” 

Having filed that caveat, he went on to add, “A ruling, settled alliance, by now should have already declared who's fighting how many seats. The fact that they haven't and that Ram Vilas’s son Chirag Paswan, who is now his anointed successor, is attacking Nitish Kumar every day, is a build-up in demand for more seats. He’s probably been put up to the job by the BJP. They perhaps have told him, ‘You attack him. And we will not say anything.’”

Even as I write this, news has broken out that Chirag Paswan has broken away from the ruling alliance in Bihar, that includes the BJP. Analysts across the country are wondering whatever is happening and which way are the winds blowing. Bihar has always been something of a mystery.

From my perch in Mumbai, I have always wondered: Why does Bihar and leaders from the state wield a disproportionate influence on India’s larger political narrative? When I asked Thakur, I am grateful he did not laugh at me. Instead, very politely and patiently, he placed things in perspective. 

“The first thing is that Bihar was an influencer state in North India. What happened in Bihar, would seep into voter patterns of Uttar Pradesh and further down. The second thing was the arithmetic of Bihar. Before 2000, when Bihar was divided into what is now Jharkhand, it used to bring 54 seats to the Lok Sabha—that is only second to Uttar Pradesh. But even now, it brings in 40 seats. Therefore, winning Bihar becomes critical to the ambitions of anybody who aspires to take power in New Delhi.” 

Does that explain why Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP are investing as much time addressing rallies in Bihar, even if it be virtually given the circumstances, I wondered aloud. He offered much perspective. 

“It is a key state. If you lose Bihar, it sends out a huge signal that you might not be actually as powerful as you claim to be. Because Bihar, from at least the time of the Emergency or the years preceding it—1973-74—was the cradle of the Anti-Emergency movement. It is where Jaiprakash began his campaign which many people call the campaign for India's second independence to defeat the Emergency. And so Bihar’s influence can barely be overstated in terms of how it impacts national politics, not just in sheer numbers, but also symbolically.”

Even as he was saying that, it was clear to me, this conversation will spiral past the 30-40 minutes my colleague Anmol and I had blocked out on our calendars. We were beginning to enjoy listening to him. Because what we were now hearing was not just a story about Bihar and the future of Nitish Kumar, but a narrative on the dynamics of power and how it plays out in the heart of India.

Just to place things in perspective, growing up and living in Mumbai, I had been exposed only to some fractions of the full Bihar narrative. 

One narrative has it that Bihar is a state condemned to poverty. The socio-economic indicators are there for everyone to see. As recently as in 2018, acclaimed economists Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze pointed out that of the 50 districts in India with health indicators worse than sub-Saharan African countries, two-thirds are concentrated in just Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. Incidentally, Jharkhand and Bihar were one state until the year 2000. 

Another narrative has it that this resource-rich state and its people were driven into poverty because of a series of disastrous public policies. As the paper I’ve hyperlinked to here explains, this was not “due to a particular factor but an outcome of a myriad of social, economic and political factors rooted in structural, historical and macro-economic policies.”

Having been a writer for over two decades now, I can state a few things with a degree of certainty: Latching to just one narrative is a travesty of justice to larger-than-life characters in a biopic. 

To do justice, their stories must be stitched together after listening closely to someone who intimately understands the landscape and the people that populate it. Because they may know which parts of the narrative in a story are real, what is fictitious, and how much must be ignored. That is why I placed my bets to understand the story of Bihar on Thakur, whose work I have followed for many years now.

The chaos (and ironically, the beauty as well) that is Bihar started making sense to me when I first read The Brothers Bihari in 2015. That is where he wrote, “Patna is not a nice place to be. It is home to me and I cannot stop wanting to go back every once in a while, wanting to be part of its life. I say this even so: Patna is not a nice place to be.”

Patna is the capital city of Bihar. In this book Thakur has chronicled the political lives of Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar in an omnibus edition. Last month, when the election dates were announced, I revisited the book and devoured it almost overnight.

Thakur had signed off the chapter around Lalu Yadav on an interesting note: “Lalu Yadav never had it in him to deliver the development he promised. Besides, he never bothered… He knew his interests would be served without development. Expediency and self-interest were the only rules Lalu Yadav ruled by.” 

For all the buffoonery in public, the pages painted the picture of a wily man who knew how to tame power. 

But it was Nitish Kumar’s emergence from the boondocks, rise to power, his exasperating silences, and the portrait that Thakur painted that compelled me to reach out to him. What sense am I to make of this Nitish Kumar? 

Nitish Kumar came into power in 2005 by promising Bihari's “progress”. Voters used to call him Sushasan Babu (Good Governance Boss). All was well for a little while and Biharis thought they could see progress after the ouster of Lalu Yadav. Even the tiniest of things he did—get some tarmac on roads or bulbs replaced on street lamps—was seen as progress. “It was incredulous to the people of Bihar that something was being done,” says Thakur. That is how badly the state had degenerated.

After the “dark Lalu years” as Thakur puts it, Kumar “got back a semblance of law and order”. Primary Health Centres started to receive supplies that states in other parts of the country used to take for granted, dilapidated schools started to get repainted and girls there were given bicycles and uniforms. All these acts were perceived as good governance and it paid him huge dividends in 2010. He continued on the trajectory because “he is a man who understands government files and what direction to give the bureaucracy,” says Thakur.  

That is why he was winning accolades from across the country. The perception about Kumar was that he was a man on a mission to transform Bihar. In fact, there was a narrative forming around him that projected him as a prime ministerial candidate. 

But after Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister in 2014, and after witnessing the outcome of the elections in UP where the BJP swept into power in 2015, over a series of conversations, Nitish Kumar told Thakur he is dropping the ball on his prime ministerial ambitions. 

Why Nitish Kumar did that is something Thakur says is unclear to him. Because a lack of ambition in a politician is a negative trait and ought to be treated with scorn. From Thakur’s perch, what he has witnessed is a man desperate to cling to power at any cost—all else be damned. 

The early narrative of Nitish Kumar that Thakur paints is about an idealistic man drawn to the socialist school of politics. He was compelled to marry at age 22 because that was what family and society insisted he must do. While he gave in to tradition, in an act of defiance, he refused to accept dowry. And in yet another act of defiance, he burnt the engineering degree that he’d earned to protest the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi and went to jail. Nitish Kumar earned my admiration right away.

The strokes painted by Thakur show that in the early years of his political life, Nitish Kumar stood for all things secular. And that he abhorred communal politics of the kind practiced by the BJP. Ironically, he is now one of the party’s close allies. 

Thakur’s deeply intimate portrait of Nitish Kumar shows a conflicted man at odds with himself and those around him. He never utters a cuss word in public even when provoked; is deeply introverted; and given half a chance, would spend time with his books, not people.

What I couldn’t wrap my head around though is why did he ally with Narendra Modi? How did his socialist side embrace Modi’s extreme right? The impression I got from Thakur’s book is that of a man who cannot make up his mind and keeps vacillating. Then on the other hand, I have heard from others that not making up your mind is a strategy. 

The only person who could answer these questions was Thakur. And on listening to him, I figured that not making up his mind is indeed a part of Nitish Kumar’s strategy. His closest aides don’t know what rabbit may he pull out of his hat and when. But what Thakur did make clear is that Nitish Kumar’s graph looks to be on the downward spiral.

Does that have to do with his mishandling of migrants returning to their home state during the pandemic and panic during the monsoon floods, I asked. The answer had me stunned and showed how far removed I am from where Bihar lives.

“Floods and famines don’t bring down or bring governments into power. It happens every year…” 

Bihar and Bihari’s instead are enamoured by Narendra Modi (not the BJP, Thakur clarifies). As for Nitish Kumar, he too, is aware that he faces a juggernaut called Narendra Modi. And that nobody has quite figured how to counter this man. Upon listening to him, what I gathered are the remarkable similarities between both—their fetish for personal hygiene, conflicted relationships with their spouses and perception in the public eye. 

However, this is where the similarities end. Because as Thakur puts it, in politics, when you know that you are aligned with a juggernaut who can steamroll you after the elections, it only means one of two things—you have either given up on the fight. Or you have something lined up that no one knows about. 

“Is that one of the reasons why you call Nitish Kumar amoral?” I asked him.

“Yes,” Thakur said. “Nitish is amoral. His morality is about power. He is a creature of power.”

(The edited conversation with Sankarshan Thakur will be published later this week.)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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