Nitish Kumar`s game changer: Special status for Bihar

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has been demanding special status for Bihar for a long time now. He has been holding rallies across the state and taking up the matter with the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the Planning Commission. And on March 17, he stormed Delhi in style addressing a massive rally at Ramlila Maidan, highlighting the good work done by his government and the contribution of ‘Biharis’ in the development of the country.

However, the question to be asked is whether his ‘Adhikar rally’ was just to demand what he thinks is the right of the people of Bihar (the state has the maximum number of backward districts as compared to other states even though an inter-ministerial group rejected his contention on certain grounds) or was it a show of strength of his party and an attempt to put across a message to the ruling government at the Centre as well as his ally, Bhartiya Janata Party, that it would not be in their interest to ignore regional parties or rather the JD(U).

“Either you give it (special status) now or after 2014, you will have to give it. You will have to accept the demand in circumstances that will be there after 2014. Only one, who feels about the backward, the backward states will occupy the seat of power in Delhi (Centre)”, Kumar said while addressing the huge rally. If one were to read between the lines, his comments could be interpreted in two ways. That no government can come to power at the Centre without the support of regional parties and that he would not mind changing his allegiance to whoever meets his demands. In more ways than one he maintained an equal distance both from the Congress and the BJP.

Given Nitish’s tone and tenor the BJP should be worried, especially in view of the fact that the Congress has more times than one sent feelers to the JD(U) chief. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister P Chidambaram and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi have all taken turns to praise Nitish’s administrative qualities and Bihar’s growth rate. And Nitish too, while addressing a rally in Bettiah in September last year, had remarked that he would support that party at the Centre which will give a special status to Bihar. Notably, Bihar sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha.

The Bihar CM’s abhorrence to Narendra Modi is also too well known. With more than 15 percent of the population of Bihar comprising of Muslims, Nitish does not have any other choice than to be a Modi baiter. In what can be said to be a veiled attack on the Gujarat Chief Minister, Nitish said – “We will leave everyone behind and move ahead with development. And we will present a model before the world. These days development model is being discussed. This model is what takes along everyone together. This is the real development model of India”. The obvious reference and sarcasm to the ‘Gujarat model’ being harped on by Modi cannot be missed.

Most predict that if the BJP decides to name Modi as their prime ministerial candidate, then the snapping of ties between the JD(U) and the BJP is inevitable. The party spokesperson, Shivanand Tiwari, did say recently that though the JD(U) wanted the alliance with the BJP to continue, it was prepared to contest all the seats alone in 2014. However, it will not be easy for the JD(U) to survive in Bihar without the help of the BJP. Also, it makes no sense for Nitish to forge an alliance with the Congress which is non-existent in Bihar. Lalu Yadav is his bitter enemy and as it is the RJD is a spent force in the state. But one can never predict too much in politics.

To be noted is the fact that Nitish did not invite his NDA partner to the rally in the national capital. The JD(U)’s argument is that it was the party’s event. However, any matter which affects Bihar must also matter to the BJP as it is a part of the ruling coalition in the state. And Bihar’s Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi is the Finance Minister.

Another interesting point that Nitish made was when he welcomed Centre`s proposal to change the criteria for backwardness, saying that his fight was “not only for Bihar but other similar backward states, too". With the Left and the likes of Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee and Tamil Nadu CM Jayalalithaa talking about a non-Congress and non-BJP PM in 2014, Nitish’s statement seems to be loaded. Is he trying to reach out to like-minded people and look for new allies? After all, according to the grapevine, he too aspires to be the country’s prime minister and his party leaders have at more instance than one said that he has all the qualities in him to occupy the top post.

Post Script: No one will deny that Nitish Kumar is responsible for the turnaround in the Bihar’s fortunes after the state was virtually taken into dark ages by the Lalu Prasad government, even though the developmental work done in his first term was more than done in the second tenure. He tackled law-and-order issues, improved infrastructure and made the environment friendly enough for businessmen to invest in the state. He is considered a workaholic with a fairly clean image, even though his government has been accused of certain scams in the recent past.

However, like many aspirants for the top job of the country and if not, the desire to be the kingmaker, Nitish Kumar too knows that the transition from the state to the Centre is not going to be easy. But like an astute politician he is playing his cards to the best that he can. Will it reap dividends in the future – as goes a clichéd statement – only time will tell.