Time is running out for Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, and his dream project of becoming the next Prime Minister of India seems to be slipping out of his hands especially after the recent winter elections. The Gujarat victory has given the Bharatiya Janata Party its seventh straight term in the state and has also reaffirmed that Narendra Modi remains unassailable. It has once again proved to his naysayers that he remains a brand in the reckoning. With this as the political reality, Nitish Kumar's efforts of forging an Opposition alliance against the BJP seems a distant dream and also doesn't seem to be gaining too much credibility on the ground. There is no encouraging murmur so far regarding the Main Front or the Third Front as the Opposition parties look scattered in different directions, be it Congress, Aam Aadmi Party or for that matter other regional satraps, at least for now. Localised shows of unity, like in Maharashtra recently, might not prove to be the final cement for someone like Nitish Kumar aspiring for a bigger national role for himself.
The going seems to be tough for the Sushasan Babu as the matrix in Bihar doesnt seem to be in his favour. A week ago almost, Mr Kumar announced that Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejasvi Yadav will head the Mahagathbandhan alliance in 2025, causing heartburn for many within the JDU. According to the political understanding, Mr Kumar will have to abandon the post of Bihar Chief Minister in 2023, which is not a very comfortable idea to him — but if he's gunning for the post of PM in 2024 this sacrifice seems inevitable. Despite this, however, he looks unsure, timid and indecisive.
The recent hooch tragedy in Chhapra has once again put Nitish Kumar’s prohibition policy into sharp focus. Mr Kumar flew into an uncontrollable rage inside the state Assembly on December 14 when the Opposition raised the pitch on how the policy, which he implemented in 2016, was an utter failure. He was criticised for not reining in the bootleggers as a result of which the spurious liquor industry is thriving in Bihar as a parallel black economy. Rather than pondering on what has gone wrong with his policy, Mr Kumar gesticulated angrily and in a highly intimidating manner at the Opposition benches, and shouted at them: “Sharab bandi ke paksh mein aap sab thay ya nahin? Ab kya ho gaya? Sharabi ho gaye tum log? Ab tolerate nahin kiya jayega.” (Were you all not in favour of prohibition earlier? What happened now? You have all become alcoholics? I will not tolerate this any more).
The Chief Minister's outburst drew condemnation from the Opposition. BJP Rajya Sabha MP Sushil Modi, who had been a long-time associate of Mr Kumar and served as the Deputy Chief Minister when Mr Kumar was part of the NDA, said that the Chief Minister has “lost it”. “His (Kumar's) time is over. He has lost his faculties. He addresses Opposition MLAs angrily as 'tu' and 'tum' and threatens them on the floor of the Assembly. We have seen such terrible behaviour from him in the recent past as well. He loses his temper very often nowadays,” said Mr Modi.
This is not the first time that Mr Kumar has made a public display of his exasperation and indignation. There have been incidents of his outrage since 2020 but the recent one inside the Assembly has hit his image beyond repair, questioning whether at all he is fit for the larger role he is seeking for himself at the national level. Mr Kumar looks frustrated as Prohibition was his pet project; his popularity rode on it, therefore questions being raised and demands being made to revoke the policy is nothing less than humiliation for him. His own ally RJD is also not in favour of Prohibition and he knows that once Tejasvi Yadav is in the hot seat, he will undo this policy.
Mr Kumar is feeling cornered not only because of the mounting death figures due to the Chhapra hooch tragedy; the recent defeat in the Kurhani by-poll has also posed a question mark against the success of the Mahagathbandhan alliance in Bihar. The Kurhani defeat again has been attributed to the prohibition policy which banned not only alcohol but toddy as well — and this was a source of employment for lakhs of Dalit families in that region. With a political slugfest building up over compensation to the liquor victims’ families, Mr Kumar is trying to put up a righteous Gandhian stance, revealing his double standards as in the case of Gopalganj tragedy in 2016, the Government had paid compensation. He has once again proved that he is capable of taking U-turns on sensitive subjects like these.
With Prohibition proving to be politically suicidal, his move to forge an anti-BJP alliance not making headway, and cracks emerging within the JDU following his announcement of Mr Yadav as his successor, Mr Kumar is caught between the devil and the deep sea. His image has taken a severe beating as well, which has left him frustrated, sulking and directionless despite his efforts to maintain the upper hand along with the moral high ground. All his pronouncements of how he will turn the Opposition around for 2024 sound hollow at the moment. Will he succeed? Perhaps he himself doesn't know — but if he doesn't, Nitish Kumar might become Shakespeare's King Lear who initiated his own isolation.
Neelu Vyas is a senior television anchor and consulting editor with Satya Hindi
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