Why is Nitish Kumar breaking ranks to back demonetisation?

Why is Nitish Kumar breaking ranks to back demonetisation?

Rajesh Singh | 10 Dec 2016 07:21 AM
Not much needs to be read, at least at this moment, into Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s whole-hearted support to the Modi Government’s demonetisation drive. Opposition party leaders, who believed he would back their campaign against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision, have been left stranded. At least one, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, lost her cool and called him a “traitor” to the anti-demonetisation cause.

But Nitish Kumar is a shrewd politician. He knows when to take on the Union Government and when to back it. On demonetisation, he quickly grasped the public mood, which was in favour of the move. As he reportedly told his party leaders, he would rather go with the public sentiment than with the opposition leaders’ mood. He even broke ranks with his Bihar allies, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, on the issue.

Various Bharatiya Janata Party leaders were quick to compliment the Bihar Chief Minister for his support to demonetisation. This fuelled speculation that Nitish Kumar was moving (or planning to move) towards the BJP-led NDA. At a recent media event, he dismissed such reports but also reiterated his fulsome support to demonetisation, saying he would not mince words where praise was due. While he did talk of the inconvenience to the general public, he did not, unlike other opposition leaders, over-state the matter.

The only situation in which Nitish Kumar can veer towards the NDA is when he believes he is being too fettered by compulsions of the ‘grand alliance’ – primarily by Lalu Prasad’s RJD. So far, although there have been some hiccups, there is no indication of the coalition falling apart. It is possible that things are happening at a subaltern or deeper level, but those developments have remained contained. So long as the crisis is manageable, Nitish Kumar will not rock the alliance’s boat.

The numbers in the Assembly are also an issue. Minus the RJD and the Congress, Nitish Kumar can continue in Government and as Chief Minister with the BJP’s support. But even for those numbers to hold, he has to ensure that all his MLAs support him in his decision to return to the NDA’s fold.

If even a fistful of Legislators oppose the decision, Nitish Kumar’s Government will fall. After all, in case the Chief Minister decides to sever ties with the RJD, Lalu Prasad will not sit idle. He will work to split Nitish Kumar Janata Dal (United).

The other option, in case Nitish Kumar takes the plunge, is for him to quit, recommend the Assembly’s dissolution and seek a fresh mandate, this time in alliance with the BJP. There is no knowing the outcome in such a scenario, but the NDA with the JD (U) back in the fold will be a formidable force in Bihar.

It’s unlikely that the truncated Congress-RJD combine will be able to put up a stiff electoral fight. Moreover, the Congress had come on board the last time around under Nitish Kumar’s leadership. It may not accept similar subordination in the RJD’s favour.

Those who see dim prospects of Nitish Kumar’s return to the NDA, point to his lurking ambition to be a national-level leader. There is no vacancy in the NDA, with Narendra Modi firmly in the saddle and his personal ratings as Prime Minister high enough to discourage any potential claimant to the position.

Moreover, remember what Lalu Prasad had said soon after the ‘grand alliance’ assumed power in Patna. He remarked that while Nitish Kumar would take care of Bihar, he would tour the country to drum up support for his anti-Modi and oust-Modi campaign. The hint was clear enough: Nitish Kumar would do well to confine himself to the State while Lalu Prasad would emerge as the anti-Modi pan-India face from Bihar.

Since then, however, the script has not played out as per plan. Nitish Kumar’s support to demonetisation and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s brazen self-promotion as all-India figure, who can take on Modi, has pushed Lalu Prasad tothe flanks.

Further, Lalu Prasad has toned down his anti-demonetisation rhetoric (following Nitish Kumar’s intervention), although his anti-Modi rant remains undiluted. The RJD supremo’s only ace up the sleeve is his party’s strength in the Bihar Assembly, which is more than the JD (U)’s. He can use this to browbeat Nitish Kumar.

But Nitish Kumar is no pushover. If the Modi Government seriously takes up his suggestion in the coming months to crack down hard on benami dealings, it will get another round of applause from the Bihar Chief Minister. Will that finally trigger a political realignment? That remains to be seen.

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