Is Bihar politician Nitish Kumar principled or opportunistic? Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi
Is Bihar politician Nitish Kumar principled or opportunistic? Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

On July 26, opposition stalwart Nitish Kumar resigned his position as chief minister of the key northern Indian state of Bihar, thereby damaging the prospects of the emerging  “grand alliance” (maha-gatbandhan) of parties aimed at defeating the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the crucial national election due in 2019.

Kumar’s loyalty to his alliance partners including the Congress party of Sonia Gandhi, the regional “socialist” parties RJD (Rashtriya Janata Dal) of Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Janata Dal (United) was subverted.

Some top leaders of the BJP are said to have played a key role in facilitating the process. Kumar had earlier been chief minister of Bihar in a coalition government with the BJP from 2005-2014.

Immediately after his resignation, Kumar formed an alternative state government with the BJP and proved his majority in the Bihar State Assembly with a BJP-appointed governor in office.

Kumar’s reason for defection from the “grand alliance” requires an explanation. The alliance of the Indian National Congress, the JD (U) and the RJD had no doubt crushed the BJP in the 2015 State Assembly election in Bihar and had formed a government led by Kumar. However, his hope and expectation that the anti-BJP alliance would nominate him its prime-ministerial candidate ahead of the 2019 general election had been dashed.

Further, Nitish Kumar, insecure as he was, seems to have feared that if his rival Lalu Yadav’s party the RJD became more successful than his own JD (U) in the State Assembly election due in 2020, Yadav might insist on his son Tejaswi Yadav becoming the chief minister, which would leave Kumar out in the cold. The JD (U) happens to be a much smaller party than the RJD.

Kumar’s resignation, however, was absolutely shocking to everyone in the grand alliance.

The previous state government led by Nitish Kumar had a progressive agenda advocating secularism, social justice, democracy and opposition to crony capitalism. This cannot be said of the new BJP-JD (U) government that Kumar formed on July 27.

This was considered rank betrayal on the part of Nitish Kumar as perceived by his comrades in the “socialist” formation of the JD (U) and the grand alliance.

Many felt that the proper thing for Kumar would have been to recommend dissolution of the State Assembly and fresh elections. His departure was unseemly.

The overt reason Kumar advanced for his resignation was that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had made some charges of corruption against Tejaswi Yadav, Kumar’s deputy chief minister, and  he said his conscience did not allow him to continue in office, especially in the context of the minister’s unwillingness to explain his conduct.

The minister had only said that the CBI’s charges were politically motivated. It is a fact that in India regulatory organizations such the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate have often been misused by ruling politicians to target their enemies. The proper thing for Nitish Kumar would perhaps have been to dismiss or suspend the minister and set up an inquiry into the charges against him. He did not do that.

His abrupt resignation appeared politically motivated.

Nitish Kumar had prepared the ground for his resignation in advance by openly supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial demonetization move in November 2016. He also supported the Modi government’s nominee for the post of president of India, who was eventually elected. He had also earlier backed the Modi government’s “surgical strikes” on terrorist hubs in Pakistan.

Kumar’s stand on the charges of political corruption against his deputy chief minister appears unconvincing. It flew against the fact that multiple charges of un-investigated corruption existed against several the BJP leaders at the central and state governments.

To take one example, one of the most notorious and deadly cases is a corruption scandal of long standing in majority-BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh called “Vyapam” (2013), named after a self-financing autonomous state body that conducts standardized tests for admission to various professional courses and thousands of government jobs.

This is a politically sanctioned policy-enabled system of racketeering that has extracted bribes and kickbacks running into hundreds of millions of rupees in exchange for fixing the results of supposedly tests for admission to state-run medical colleges and thousands of government jobs, according to N Ram’s 2017 book Understanding Political Corruption in India: Why Scams Are Here to Stay.

The case remains conspicuously un-investigated.    

In the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, ruled in turn by the Congress party and the BJP, a chief minister committed suicide after he was unable to pay the massive demands for corrupt payments made on him to keep his job.

In many of these cases in several states, there is nothing to choose between the two major ruling parties of India: the Congress and the BJP. It is unlikely that a leading politician such as Nitish Kumar did not know this when on July 27 he submitted his resignation on the issue of corruption charges made against a minister in his government by the CBI.

N Ram states that political corruption in India today is an “endemic and deep-rooted disorder” and efforts to eradicate it have been “notoriously unsuccessful”.

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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