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Last week Charles Assisi wrote an essay on Nitish Kumar, who is in the fray for a third term as Bihar chief minister.
Titled The amorality of Nitish Kumar, it painted a portrait of the politician and his many “pivots”, and was based on Charles’s conversation with Sankarshan Thakur, National Affairs Editor at The Telegraph and author of The Brothers Bihari.
The conversation explored what will matter and what will not in this election (pandemic, labour migration, good governance won’t; Narendra Modi’s “Teflon-coated” image will.). It delved into the Lalu years and Nitish Kumar’s previous terms to give context and to understand the complexities of Bihar—from the caste equations, the personality cults and the issues of governance. And Thakur spoke about what he’s picking up from the ground today.
This is an edited excerpt of that conversation.
The significance of Bihar elections
- Winning in Bihar matters, because it impacts national politics. It brings in 40 seats.
- This is the first election after the pandemic. Will that and the labour migration crisis have a bearing on the outcome? Thakur says he cannot say that it will influence voters. It’s true that there was better governance under Nitish, but the truth is, Lalu was voted despite seating Rabri Devi as CM. So, governance doesn’t necessarily come into the equation.
[Watch the video up to the 12 min, 30 sec mark]
Nitish Kumar the politician, and what could be his narrative the third time around?
- Thakur talks about what he is reading on the ground. Given the BJP juggernaut and Modi’s pull, what could Nitish’s narrative be a third time around?
- He says, flood and famines don’t bring governments down. They happen every year.
- Nitish is amoral. His morality is about power. He is a creature of power. In his quest for power, he’s gone from the extreme left to the extreme right.
- Thakur describes the contours of “Backward (caste) politics” in Bihar. He describes Lalu as a cocky backward; and Nitish as a vernacular backward.
- He also contrasts better governance under Nitish vs “the dark years” of Lalu, giving some background on Nitish’s earlier terms—and the way he ditched the NDA alliance in 2013.
- Has Nitish dropped the ball on his prime ministerial ambition? Nitish’s JDU has never won on its own, Thakur points out. He has always won as part of NDA or Mahagathbandhan. In 2010 he could have struck out on his own, but he missed the chance. And by Thakur’s reckoning, he will never be able to rule Bihar on his own.
- What makes him a formidable contender? He is wily, Thakur says, and it’s hard to guess what's in his mind. He keeps even close associates guessing about his next move.
[Watch the video from 12:30 to 46:56]
The trends in Bihar
- This section details the caste landscape in Bihar and trends that Thakur is picking up.
- Nitish's graph as an administrator is going down; the entire graph of the opposition is going down, he says.
- The graph of Narendra Modi (not the BJP) is sustaining.
- And the main opposition party in Bihar at the moment is the Bharatiya Janata Party, though it is in the ruling alliance.
- In terms of seeking a share of power—not just the share of power, but the degree of power—the BJP is way above. And the BJP led by Modi.
- The chemistry of the Bihar election is yet to be crafted. One doesn't know when Modi drops a shock and the graph goes higher or lower. But the general trends that you understand as an observer is that Nitish Kumar does not have the shine that he had five years ago.
- Lalu Yadav is not a factor. He won't be chief minister, so who do they vote for?
- Thakur insists “it will be completely outrageously audacious for me to become the repository of public sentiment. I'm not. I'm just a journalist. I'm a reporter. I'm passing by.”
[Watch the video from 46:57]
Still curious? Read: The amorality of Nitish Kumar