When they brought the warriors home on Wednesday, reactions varied from war dance to studied nonchalance to outright callousness. And emerged winner in the political battle was Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar.
What keeps Kumar always cool and gutsy? When things are not particularly favourable — even to his personal political image — he just shows his rational face and talks about development ideas and political conviction.
But the amused eyes and the carefully kept three-day stubble can hide what a sharp and calculating mind is doing. He is always short and crisp when it comes to realpolitik and then quickly goes back to his public persona — the development man, who made Bihar a workable proposition.
During the last two months, things, however, were not particularly favourable to him with a long list of incidents — from the split with the BJP following Narendra Modi’s selection as its campaign head to the serial blasts in Bodh Gaya and the Chhapra mid-day meal tragedy.
They were enough to make an ordinary man with a wafer-thin majority in the assembly stumble. But Kumar remained cool. He gambled even while splitting from the NDA, but in a calculated manner.
“He took a studied position on the alliance without ever wavering despite the price he may have to pay”, said JD (U) leader and one of his confidants, Shivanand Tiwary.
When bodies of four of the five soldiers slain on the Line of Control in Jammu came home, Nitish avoided overexposure to television cameras and remained restrained in his speech though his friend-turned-foe BJP went into a virtual war dance.
“There is anger. India should reply, but the channel for the peace process should be kept open” was all that he said.
Later, however, one of his ministers misread his boss’ restraint as indifference and put both his feet firmly in the mouth, saying that the men joined the forces only to become martyrs. Kumar promptly stepped in, apologised for his man’s faux pas and forced him to follow suit.
As peace prevailed, Kumar went back to his world of simple logic and complex calculations.
Saibal Gupta, chairman of Asian Development Research Institute, a Patna-based economic and political think tank, said, “His approach is not personal. It’s system-driven. Where others may tend to panic, he applies processes and goes for systemic changes.”
Kumar has also realised that the 2014 polls will be a game-changer. He needs to protect his vote bank and rope in allies. For now, critics say, he can afford to relax, knowing that after the NDA split, no formation even aspires to challenge him. That is one of the factors that allows him to remain cool.
But questions are being raised about Kumar’s handling of the situation — almost bordering on indifference. Was he avoiding mindless jingoism? Was he sending a strong message to the forces led by minor apparatchiks of the BJP? Was he worried about the impact of the deaths on the Indian polity?
Tiwary said, “Kumar thinks that the elected government of Nawaz Sharif needs a chance when non-state actors define the political momentum. But since the Indian public is in anger, their displeasure should be heard.”
In sharp contrast, the Congress was forced to follow the BJP’s hard line till Arun Jaitley, BJP’s leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, reined in his party, which later accepted that hot pursuit was not an option.