The Pulse

Nitish Kumar Makes His Move

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The Pulse

Nitish Kumar Makes His Move

Has the architect of the Bihar growth story just made his move for a national role?

Although general elections in India are still more than a year away, that hasn’t stopped political hopefuls positioning themselves in a bid for the nation’s top job. Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, has made his first move, winning the tacit support of his party for his possible anointment as candidate.  His visits to Delhi every other week leave little doubt that the Hindu right leader will be leading the BJP’s quest for power next year.

But Modi’s counterpart in Bihar, Nitish Kumar has not been idle either. Kumar revealed his national ambitions on Sunday with a huge rally in the heart of the nation’s capital. He used the opportunity to declare that no government could be formed in 2014 if it ignored Bihar.

Kumar belongs to no national party, but his Janata Dal (United) is a powerful regional player in Bihar, ruling the state since 2005. JD(U), as it is known, is also a major alliance partner of the BJP.

Chief minister of Bihar for eight years, Kumar has earned a national and international reputation for his role in improving the fortunes of what was once considered a backward state. Bihar was lawless and destitute when Kumar took office in 2005, but he has since succeeded in injecting not only political stability, but also double-digit economic growth. Bihar is now the fastest growing state in India, overtaking star performers such as Maharashtra and Gujarat.

This success has given Kumar a national profile, with an ambition to match. That ambition was in full evidence at Sunday’s rally, which was ostensibly held to demand special status for Bihar so that it wins generous financial incentives from Delhi, while also promoting the state’s model for growth.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the rally was designed to send a larger political message to India’s ruling Congress Party and the Opposition BJP: The JD(U) cannot be taken for granted. Although his party is part of the larger BJP, Kumar tellingly refrained from criticizing the ruling Congress Party. In fact, he was effusive in his praise for the government and the consideration it has shown Bihar. This would seem to add fuel to speculation that the two parties – allied for more than a decade – may soon part ways. Were the JD(U) to align with the Congress Party, it would be a major boost for the latter’s chances of holding onto power.

But some analysts believe they see another plan, in which the wily Kumar positions himself as leader of what might generally be called a third front, opposing both the BJP and the Congress. If that is his plan, then the chances of it succeeding in the current political environment look slim.

Kumar’s main rival in any ascension to the very pinnacle of Indian politics is Narendra Modi, widely touted as a possible BJP candidate for prime minister. Kumar’s options here are limited. Modi is a controversial figure following his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom that killed more than 1000 people, mostly Muslims. The JD(U) derives most of its support from religious minorities, which would be unlikely to take kindly to any alignment with Modi.

That’s why Kumar used his rally in Delhi to attack Modi’s growth model. Indeed, he was quoted as saying “There is talk of a development model these days. We will present a model before the world. This is the model under which everybody is taken along. This is the real development model for India.”

This talk of an inclusive development agenda is a direct challenge to Modi, who has been touting his Gujarat model as the best example for the nation.

In fact, the rally underscores a key question for India: Does a multicultural, multi-religious country need a leader who is divisive and known for his majoritarian agenda, or would it do better under someone who is inclusive and unifying?

No doubt Sunday’s rally has set the stage for a political realignment ahead of the 2014 general elections. Bihar sends 40 parliamentarians to the Lower House and no major political party can afford to antagonize a leader who demonstrates a hold over the majority of these seats.