After BJP’s UP Win, Will Nitish Take on Role of Modi’s Challenger?

Sitting inside a Western Union branch on the outskirts of Bihar’s Siwan district, I asked the manager about the religious composition of the people going to the Gulf for jobs from the region. A gentleman sitting next to me did not like my question and quickly interrupted. “Why this obsession with religious composition? Why cannot you say that skilled workers go to the Gulf region, not Hindus and Muslims,” he broke in rather forcefully.

The observation perfectly fits in with what I saw in and around the district town, otherwise known for the notoriety of Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Mohammad Sahabuddin, in the run up to the assembly elections in Bihar in 2015. I came across rows of houses – a Hindu’s followed by a Muslim’s – flaunting their owners’ religious identity, yet living in perceived harmony. Muslim neighbours would ensure that skilled workers from other communities do avail of lucrative opportunities in the Gulf region.

At the end of the tour I wrote elsewhere:

It is their pursuit of the common goal of going abroad together for jobs that has provided an additional glue to the already amicable relations between Hindus and Muslims in the region.

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A Delhi-based senior journalist who happens to be a regular visitor to the region had told me: “If you live together and trust each other so much that you don’t mind sending your children abroad to earn, then you can imagine the bond members of the two communities share. Other than living together, their fortunes are also interlinked and rhetoric alone cannot break this bond.”

No Accusation of Appeasement Politics Against Nitish

That was a slice of Nitish Kumar’s Bihar in 2015 – low on socio-economic indices despite years of very high economic growth but very high on inter-community co-existence quotient.

That is partly because of the politics of two of the state’s most influential leaders – Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and RJD supremo Laloo Prasad Yadav. While the two have never shied from actively wooing Muslims for electoral gains, the accusation of the politics of appeasement has never stuck against them.

If the administration has been lax, it has stayed that way for all communities. However, if it is functional (which was the case during the early years of the Nitish’s rule), it spared none. At least that was the perception.

The Akhilesh Yadav administration in Uttar Pradesh, however, could never acquire such a reputation. During the course of several field trips, it was not unusual to come across voices questioning the impartiality of the administration on inter-community relations. At least the perception of it alienated a large section of population. It is easy to blame others for polarising voters, quite another to address the issues that give credence to such perception. The Samajwadis and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party failed on this front.

Also Read: Set Aside the Bonhomie, Modi-Nitish Coalition Is a Distant Dream

Modi vs Nitish Match in 2019?

A file photo of a poster of Narendra Modi alongside Nitish Kumar’s. (Photo: Reuters)

Now that the Bharatiya Janata Party has decimated the opposition in politically significant Uttar Pradesh, can Nitish Kumar mount a semblance of a challenge to a wildly popular prime minister who is going from strength to strength after every election? Can we expect a Modi versus Nitish contest in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?

Political observers say that among all the opposition leaders, Nitish Kumar is best-placed to lead a coalition against the seemingly unstoppable BJP. And here is why. Unlike most opposition leaders, he has the credibility, a definite track record and the ability to read people’s mind.

“Following the demonetisation announcement, some journalists sought Nitish Kumar’s reaction. The Bihar chief minister was to address a public rally that day and he asked reporters to come to him after the meeting. At the rally, the moment he started speaking about demonetisation, there was wild cheer from the crowd. Nitish immediately sensed that the public mood is supportive of the PM’s move and he too praised notebandi,” a senior journalist with a leading television channel told me some time ago.

Nitish’s stubborn support to what seemed to many others as an anti-people move baffled many of his allies. But he stuck to his ground and we now know, with the benefit of hindsight, that Nitish got the people’s pulse right.

But Nitish Has to Work on Building Alliances

Similarly, Nitish’s seemingly obsessive pursuit of prohibition has come in for a fair bit of criticism. But reports from Bihar suggest that he has the backing of the people despite apprehensions of a fall in the state’s revenue and its likely impact on development work.

However, reading people’s pulse is one thing and stitching an alliance of like-minded parties is quite another exercise. For the latter, Nitish will have to shed some of his self-imposed reticence and reach out to others all the time.

He enjoys a good equation with AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, TMC’s Mamata Banerjee and BJD’s Naveen Patnaik. However, his immediate challenge will be to help the SP, the BSP and the Congress pick up the pieces after the electoral debacle in Uttar Pradesh.

The most important challenge for Nitish, though, will be to build a strong bridge with the Congress. Despite a series of reverses, the Congress still remains a party with some presence in most parts of the country.

Will Nitish walk the extra mile to build alliances?