Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has called the junking of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes a monumental mismanagement, after months of heaping praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision. Kumar – also the Janata Dal (United) President – has left political observers rather flummoxed with his flip flops of past months.
What explains the chief minister’s U-turn on the demonetisation question?
Warming up to the BJP
By intention or design, the Bihar chief minister has made indiscreet hints that he could realign his politics with that of the BJP, if the situation so demanded.
After having worked intensively to launch the JD(U) in Uttar Pradesh politics, Kumar abruptly decided that his party would not contest the state elections - a decision seen as having helped the BJP consolidate its vote bank among the “non-Yadav” Other Backward Caste –OBC voters.
Not too long ago, Kumar was seen as cozying up to his bête noir and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the birth anniversary celebrations of Sikh religious leader, Guru Gobind Singh. More recently, he was seen applying the saffron colour to the design of a lotus (BJP’s election symbol) at a book fair at Patna.
Of course, Kumar’s position on the demonetisation question has changed radically too. After having been the first non-BJP chief minister to have supported the Prime Minister’s initiative, he adopted a contrary position on Friday, saying that he did not agree with the manner in which the scheme had been implemented. “The move has failed to achieve the desired goals of rooting out black money”, he said.
Uneasy relations with Lalu Prasad’s RJD
Kumar has led an alliance government earlier (with the BJP), but his position as chief minister has never been quite as tentative. The Rashtriya Janata Dal, as a bigger partner, has been aggressive in its political posturing and dismissive of the chief minister’s image as a “Sushashan” (Good governance) man. Crime has galloped, while the state has been hit by a series of scams including the paper leak controversy in recruitments by the Bihar Employees Selection Commission and the Bihar Public Services Commission (BPSC). News reports suggest that transfers and postings of bureaucrats are largely being done at the insistence of the RJD. Under reported pressure from the RJD, the chief minister cancelled the function he has held in past years to present the government’s annual report card. Senior RJD leaders such as Raghuvansh Prasad Singh have often been coming out in open defiance of the chief minister’s policies. “Kumar is clearly not the all-powerful chief minister that he was once considered. He does seem to realise that the tie-up with the RJD will split, sooner or later”, a veteran Bihar watcher said.
Kumar’s future politics
In the absence of a dedicated vote bank (unlike Lalu), Kumar’s struggle for political relevance in the transformed political scenario is acute. While there is a vacuum in the country’s Opposition space, there are little signs yet that Kumar will become acceptable as the leader of such a grouping. His re-entry into the saffron camp looks tough, although not entirely impossible. In the years or months leading to the 2019 general elections, Kumar will need to walk the talk with the dexterity of a trapeze artiste.