The Macbethian fate that awaits Bihar’s Nitish Kumar

Nitish Kumar - The Federal
Nitish Kumar. File Photo/PTI

If Nitish Kumar’s political story were to be written in one word, betrayal would be the apt choice for it.

Backstabbing is the defining theme of Kumar’s politics of three decades. He has been both its beneficiary and victim. It is the defining trait of his political equation with everyone who has had the mixed fortune of allying with him. From Lalu Prasad Yadav to Sharad Yadav, Jeetan Ram Manjhi to George Fernandes, Rahul Gandhi to Narendra Modi, everybody’s life has been part of a power, ego aur ‘dhoka’ (betrayal) story featuring the Bihar Chief Minister, not once but many times over.

Betrayal, per se, is the weapon of a coward. It is a choice made by a weakling in the pursuit of selfish interests at the cost of somebody’s trust or life. But, the problem with treachery is that it comes with a heavy price even if it begets temporary gains. Those who thrust a dagger in somebody’s back—remember they are inherently pathetic cowards— are condemned to live with the perennial subconscious dread of karma catching up some day in the form of a bigger perfidy. Remember Macbeth?

If you keep the dictum ‘betrayal begets betrayal’ in mind, the ongoing drama in Bihar becomes easy to understand. The simple dynamic—or call it law of karma—of two selfish allies with a history of a brutal betrayal and opportunistic rapprochement are getting ready for an encore, or at least that’s what both fear.

The script for the latest act in the familiar drama was written on May 23, the day results of the parliament elections were announced. In state after state, the BJP swept the election, winning more than 300 seats on its own, making everyone else, including its own partners, irrelevant.

The humongous victory had diametrically opposite effects on the partners in the NDA camp, especially in Bihar. While it made the BJP self-reliant and immune to external pulls and pressures, the margin of the triumph made the allies insecure about their own future in the partnership.

This interplay of triumph and insecurity is best reflected in the treatment meted out to Kumar during the formation of the Narendra Modi government. In spite of winning 17 out of the 17 seats allotted to it in Bihar, Kumar’s party was offered just one cabinet berth in the ministry, an offer he rejected with a gentle reminder to the BJP that it is delusional to think the result was the victory of an individual or a party. He then expanded his own ministry, keeping the BJP out of it in a quid pro quo.

With the benefit of hindsight, the BJP, on its part, feels the results in Bihar, like almost everywhere else in north, central and eastern India, could have been the same even if Kumar was not part of the NDA. Some of its leaders feel if the alliance had been finalised after the Balakot strikes, Kumar may have been forced to accept a lot less than the 17 seats he got. Convinced that the party was generous to Kumar, a section of the BJP now wants to go it alone in Bihar’s assembly elections, due in 2020.

Conquering Bihar—a sort of final frontier before its armies enter the battle for West Bengal—makes practical sense for the BJP. One, of course, it gives the BJP the sole proprietorship of a politically crucial state like Bihar. Two, it helps it finish off Kumar, an opportunistic ally who has very little in common with the BJP and its core ideology.

In 2013, Kumar had broken away from the BJP, positioning himself as a patron of secular politics, snubbing Modi publicly, questioning his role in the Gujarat riots. Back then he had famously said that in a country like India both ‘tilak’ (symbolic of Hindus) and ‘topi’ (skullcap worn by Muslims) are equally important. Two days ago, when Union minister Giriraj Singh, jabbed at Kumar for holding an ‘Iftaar’ party, his party repeated the same line.

But, how does Kumar’s ‘topi’ and ‘tilak’ politics reconcile with the BJP’s Hindutva, a political philosophy underlined by the party’s divisive statements during the poll campaign and its choice of candidates like Pragya Thakur, accused of plotting bomb blasts in Malegaon? It doesn’t. Though kept together by power, Kumar and the BJP are bitter ideological rivals who despise each other’s politics.

Kumar, for instance, doesn’t support the BJP’s stand on Article-370, Ram Mandir and Uniform Civil Code. Kumar’s reluctance to chant ‘Vande Mataram’ with Modi at an election rally in Bihar was the perfect metaphor for this clash of ideas and philosophies. With Amit Shah in charge of the home ministry, these issues are likely to become important for the BJP in the next few months. Having an ideological opponent in the NDA camp may not be politically suitable for the BJP as it sets about the task of implementing some of its perennial promises on these contentious issues.

Kumar was once seen as a potential prime ministerial candidate of the united opposition. Soon after he led the Mahagathbandhan to a poll victory in Bihar, he was projected as primus inter pares among non-BJP leaders, a sobriquet that could have pitted him against Modi if Kumar had not exercised the easier option of retaining his government in Bihar. With the entire opposition on its knees, the BJP would not mind snuffing out a potential threat like Kumar, just in case his ambitions start soaring again.

Kumar, thus, suspects a betrayal is on the anvil. His party thinks the BJP would topple his government—it is supported by the BJP—and either stake claim with the support of a breakaway faction of Lalu Yadav’s RJD, or force a mid-term poll as soon as possible. In response, Kumar is trying to pre-empt the BJP’s betrayal by opening a line with the RJD and the Congress—his 2015 allies he had dumped to return to the BJP, the ally he had jettisoned in 2013. His trusted political advisor is holding backroom parleys reportedly with the Congress.

A night of long knives awaits Bihar. In a few days we’d know who draws the first blood in the latest round of backstabbing.