Journalists and camera crews from all over India were waiting for Nitish Kumar since morning on November 8 --the day of the Bihar poll results -- at his official bungalow in Patna, but they didn’t even catch a glimpse of him.
Some wondered about courtesy, with words like ‘politeness missing’ bandied around. But the man at the centre of discussions would not be hurried, neither moved, despite leading the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) to a victory few thought possible.
Nitish was never flamboyant or “opinionated”. Never. “It’s just not in his nature”, recalled his close aide Chanchal Kumar once. Nitish never speaks without thinking, nor adds to something he does not know about. He listens.
And when he did show up for the media, knowing that Lalu Prasad had already hogged the limelight throughout the day, his face showed no excitement, not even a wee smile. It was only when the media requested for a photo-op that he got up. And as he clasped his hands and locked hands in a tight huddle, the first smile broke--appropriate, not loud, not casual-just matter of factly over a deed well done.
This man was never a good speaker, but he is a great listener. He had listened as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and effervescent Bollywood figures had scooted in to rail about him and leave.
He had let Lalu Prasad, his ‘Bade Bhai’, defend him through his raw wit and repartees, while carefully strengthening his own credentials as the man who would be chief minister and not a spokesman who would hit out promptly at every slight.
Nitish, 64, had listened in to the countless silent majority in the critical countryside constituency who mattered more. And, in his carefully measured counters to what Modi would throw at him, he had ‘hit’ back, but suavely- always tempered, within himself.
He knew he could not out talk the charismatic Modi, but that it would be the aura of a cool, restrained, chief executive that he could draw to save himself.
For the cool, suave, workaholic Nitish, an engineer-turned-politician and the son of an Ayurvedic physician, ‘the Bihar pulse’ throbbed to a different tune than the NDA had willed despite the huge draws at Modi’s 30 rallies, which was enough to unnerve the opposition. Nitish knew at the very outset what his roadmap for the campaign would be, much before anyone could even get their campaign going. And when he got going, he was his usual collected, unhurried self -- addressing the smaller bazaars, lesser known destinations, micro-managing, reaching out at the doorsteps of his people-while the biggies of the NDA had the advantage of poll bashes and better TRP.
Yet, Nitish, who is known to carry strong likes and dislikes and never forget a slight-a trait for which Lalu Prasad described him as having ‘aant mein daant’ (teeth in his belly), did not for once forget what had been hurled at him in the campaign. Working with his new tactician Prashant Kishor, who had shaped Modi’s destiny to land him in power at the Centre, he worked a carefully crafted soft campaign template for Bihar. He invoked only his work, the potential of the next government with him, the slights to Bihar and his own self, strident appeals to Bihar’s Asmita and speaking for himself as the lone Bihari against the Bahari (outsider).
He had always found a counter: an answer to anything and everything thrown at him. While he knew his association with Lalu would be the main point the opposition could score off, he had an answer ready with a subtle fact that he himself “had been with BJP too but never been coloured, and in any case Lalu is and remains a socialist”.
For the jibe, that he had promised, but not delivered power to homes, he wondered, “How could that be, when PM was assured in the belief that he was reaching every home on cable TV?”.
He was caught on the wrong foot only once, and unknowingly, when he referred to himself as a sandalwood tree on which serpents tend to wind themselves; and then briefly for an unintended run-in with a ‘tantrik’ at a party MLC’s home. Even those episodes left him unfazed.
But his journey as a politician has had fair share of highs and lows. Sophisticated, a teetotaler in love with Masala Dosas, Nitish’s carefully planned development model based on social inclusion with justice, empowerment of women and infrastructure development, which gave massive fillip to small industry, which further saw the GDSP climbing to record 22% a year in 2012, had brought prosperity.
To add, his law and order machinery had assured peace and assured women, but as he rebuilt Bihar, he had failed to create as many jobs he may have wanted. That added to outward migrants, assured that their homes would be safe under Nitish Raj, opened him to criticism too over unemployment! However, the larger perception of a working government, saved him an anti-incumbency-incumbency and delivered him a third term from people who did not see his liaison with Lalu as ‘a larger threat’ or ‘opportunistic’, as the NDA labelled it. It proved pragmatic, as proved by the swept mandate.
Even Sushil Kumar Modi, the tallest BJP leader and once his deputy and friend acknowledges Kumar to be a visionary who changed Bihar.
A child of the JP movement, who could be the Chanakya to Lalu Prasad but never the king, till late, he had worked to his Lohiate principles and been moved by JP and Karpoori Thakur- while in power-to empower the last man. It was this last thing, empowering Mahadalits, creating panchayat posts for reserved categories, creating space for women, empowering them through self-help groups, sending children to school et al, that helped him tide over even Jitan Ram Manjhi, who threatened to bring him down with the NDA’s help.
Known as the Sushashan Babu (Good governance man) and ‘Vikas Purush’, whom even critics credit with turning Bihar around, Nitish can be misconstrued as ill-tempered and manner-less too, for instances such as when he returned the Rs 5 crore of Gujarat aid to Modi, or when he allegedly refused to play host at a dinner for the BJP hierarchy in Patna in 2010.
His breakaway from the BJP in June 2013 stunned the nation, as did his resignation from the CM’s post after the heavy LS defeat in May 2014 and elevation of Manjhi as chief minister and then pulling the latter down to assume power again in January 2015.
But in every instance he had sound political logic-as he underwrote his will to stand by his own principles, even at the cost of the throne, and that, he was also ready to take the rap for failures and would not take the hand of a person opposed to his principles (Modi). Many had thought he had lost the plot each time, only to be proved wrong.
But when all seemed lost, the Chanakya of the 1990 was aroused enough to revive the Socialists of the Mandal era to craft such a social combination, which by its sheer weight was crushing.
He knew, ‘Bade Bhai’ was out of the political equation to fight for a seat and that his development initiatives would hold with the people. He knew again, that the seemingly unassailable BJP could be challenged, only if, the larger opposition out there nationally was willing to listen. He knew the Samajwadi Party was needed for a national projection of his own cause and the Congress in shambles could be roped in. “The enemy of an enemy is a friend’-that Chanakyan logic would hold-he knew. And even when Mulayam Singh Yadav miscalculated and bailed out, Nitish was sure, he had the push and the verve to survive.
He should know. For the man had created the JD-U and led it to sweeping victories, using the BJP, discarding it, to create a parallel political universe, adding a new constituency of women and Mahadalits to fashion the disempowered and the weak to match the best.
The 2015 Bihar poll victory re-wrote history, belying the BJP boast, that his 115 seats won with the BJP in 2010 was because of its cadre strength. The BJP, which had 54 seats in 2005, fighting with him, has today been brought down to 53 from the high perch of 91 seats in 2010. To add, the vivisection of the NDA of 2010 and Nitish’s thumping return has proved that without Nitish, the BJP has little future, its allies-none.
The electrical engineer had re-engineered Bihar with an electrical pulse sparked with Lalu, that could shock and in a way, few had thought to be possible. After all, his alliance was with a personage whom the urbanites had written off for his involvement in the fodder scam, a man the educated took as straight out of the comic book, little realising that his constituency had the will and the teeth to hold on to an advantage, which may have lain hidden, but was never in doubt of its own strength. The combine swept Bihar.
Kumar may be in for a test sooner, as he grapples to keep Lalu in control and limit the vaulting ambitions of his family. His will power to withstand, act and keep bureaucracy in control could be severely tested for the reason that his partner’s constituency is larger at 80 seats.
Yet, as his one-time closest aides said: “He is steel. He could control bahubalis and mainstream them into society to tame murders and kidnappings and get their ill-gotten wealth circulating again in society. He could also dare Narendra Modi by severing ties, when he though the limits had been crossed over his principles. He could even dare to join forces with Lalu Prasad, when the entire world thought he was wrong. He will have his own template of governance, on which he will not compromise”.
Persuasive, sometimes adamant, Nitish combines in himself a person, who is not good to have as an opponent. Bureaucrats sense his slight in looking through them, without noticing, and out of turn cribbers within the party have realised that there is no bitter a man than a Nitish slighted or upset. Yet, he is pragmatic, a man who is a tactician who can like a chess wizard sense every move the opponent would make and plans ahead for a counter. When that happens, few survive, as Prime Minister Modi and BJP stalwart Amit Shah would have realised by now.