The brewing power struggle between Nitish Kumar and his former protégé, Jitan Ram Manjhi—the current chief minister of Bihar—has resulted in Manjhi’s expulsion from Janata Dal (United) for “anti-party activities.” The expulsion was followed by Kumar’s meeting with Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi in which he led around 130 legislators from the JD(U) and its allies to Raj Bhavan in Patna to stake his claim to form the Bihar government. While Kumar’s return to the chief minister’s post—which he had resigned from in May last year—now appears inevitable, his oscillating stance regarding this decision may have contributed to the political crisis that Bihar is now facing. In this excerpt from Sankarshan Thakur’s Single Man: The Life & Times of Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Thakur draws on instances from Kumar’s career to establish why this indecision is not an exception; it is a character trait that has been on frequent display throughout the former chief minister’s political journey.
Nitish can be terribly risk-averse, not always a good or helpful quality in a politician. He often retreats from political opportunity even when it is staring him in the face, he turns to reflect and can consume interminable months reflecting. Call it lack of nerve or of cheek, Nitish shrinks from acting with pluck or impudence.
To walk out of Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet in 1987, to challenge a party that had a merciless 400-plus majority in the Lok Sabha, could not have been an easy decision for V.P. Singh. And yet it was upon that move, an act of momentous political chutzpah, that he turned the drift of play and became prime minister. It was sheer audacity and opportunism that enabled him to radically alter the face of north Indian politics forever. Without his revolt, there would have been no Janata Dal, no VP as prime minister, no Mandal, no reversal of the social or power order. Nitish himself was a consequence of V.P. Singh’s daring defiance of Rajiv and the Congress; that is what handed heartland politics over to non-upper caste groups.
In the same position it’s a good bet Nitish would not have moved like the V.P. Singh of 1987, resolving to take on a prime minister with a mammoth parliamentary majority on the mere sense that he could turn the needle of suspicion in the Bofors Gun case into a weapon of electoral destruction. ‘Phoonk-phoonk ke kadam rakhte hain’ . . . he takes each step gingerly, too gingerly, is how an old and close friend described his manner. ‘He will never decide in a hurry, never. He will chew over even what he knows to be right. He will chew and chew, then regurgitate and examine, mull and chew all over again. He has a problem taking critical decisions, often he lapses into an enigmatic shell, nobody may know what’s happening in his head, he can be a terrible loner.’
For colleagues, Nitish’s long and very often solitary rumination of dilemmas can be frustrating, but that’s how Nitish is—circumspect, chary, often even a little craven, all of it probably a consequence of the early reverses in his political life; he is a wary man, often too careful, he won’t step onto ground he isn’t certain will hold. A decade later, the sundering of ties with the BJP, after tensions over Narendra Modi, came about after festering four years. Nitish was never in any dilemma over his rejection of Narendra Modi’s stewardship of the BJP—just as he never thought Laloo Yadav fit to lead Bihar—but he waited to be pushed by circumstances rather than push them. In both cases, he tore himself away stitch by stitch, so slowly it was painful to watch. He has his reasons warranting such procrastination: for him contradictions must boil to the point that decisions don’t have to be taken, they just present themselves.