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Worth watching: Nitish Kumar’s future moves

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-07-2017 Rohit Prasad

It used to be said that the road to power in Delhi lay through the state of Uttar Pradesh. However, these days the attention is riveted on unsung Bihar where we appear to be in the final throes of a political assassination with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) going hammer and tongs at Lalu Prasad and his sons.

Who benefits from Prasad’s decimation in Bihar? It all depends on which of the following scenarios comes to pass. Either Nitish Kumar forms a new government with Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) support; or he forms a government on his own, using splinters from Prasad’s party. These possibilities have to be assessed in light of his obvious aspiration—to make a bid for the prime minister’s position, without losing his base in Bihar in the process.

The likelihood of Kumar becoming the prime minister within the fold of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is close to zero. This is because the BJP will continue to be the dominant force in the NDA in the foreseeable future, and there is little chance of Kumar cutting ice with power centres within the BJP. There is a possibility that Kumar will wean away some voters from the NDA with his appeal of “good governance” but in order to do so he will have to walk a middle path between issues dear to the NDA and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). While this may give him some heft with NDA supporters, will it allow him to command the loyalty of the UPA?

If and when the Narendra Modi-led NDA juggernaut is halted, it will not be by the application of deft manoeuvring à la Chanakya niti. It can only be through an ideological battle waged by a united opposition that blasts away the trade-offs that the NDA has successfully sold to the electorate: the acceptance of more communal strife in return for less corruption (although in relation to corruption one wonders at the vast resources conjured by the BJP for elections); the condoning of reverses to the agriculture and unorganized sectors in return for a move to a less-cash, goods and services tax (GST)-driven economy; and the substitution of a dynastic hegemony (admittedly with a history of sizeable contributions to the country) by a cult of personality (indubitably possessed of remarkable talents).

This ideological battle cannot be led by a person attempting a tightrope walk between the two extremes, especially one who is already known for his flip flops— part of the NDA for 17 years, vocal critic of Modi before the 2014 election, ally of one-time arch enemy Lalu Prasad, and presently adopting an approach of issue-based support for the NDA. Hence, at some point, Kumar will have to make a concerted attempt to hew to positions espoused by the UPA. The equation of “kendra mein Narendra aur Bihar mein Nitish Kumar” (Modi at the Centre, Kumar in Bihar) no longer serves his long-term aspirations. So can he afford to turn the other way while Prasad’s empire burns?

In scenario 1, where Kumar takes BJP support, the BJP will have killed two birds with one stone: the power of a formidable rabble-rouser will have been circumscribed, and Kumar will be nullified as a prime ministerial threat, because of his perceived proximity to the BJP. In scenario 2, where Kumar wins with support from disaffected’s MLAs (members of legislative assembly), if the opposition rallies around him, then Kumar will have emerged as a potent threat, but Prasad could take the opposition down along with himself.

The safe strategy for both the BJP and Kumar, then, is to weaken Prasad but not decimate him entirely. The BJP would like to weaken him to the point that Kumar needs its support, but not so much that he can form an independent government. Kumar would like to weaken him in order to gain tighter control over his government, but not to the point that he needs the BJP’s support, or even to the extent that Prasad becomes irrelevant. In a relative sense, Kumar’s interests are more closely aligned with Prasad’s than with the BJP’s. Hence one expects the mahagathbandhan to survive, albeit with a restructuring of power equations.

The choice of optimal political strategy is sometimes thought of as a painting on a blank canvas but, in reality, it is contingent on the personality traits of the leaders involved. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin had divided writers into two categories: “foxes” who knew many things, and “hedgehogs” who knew one thing and knew it deeply. He called the Russian writers Anton Chekhov and Alexander Pushkin foxes for their brilliant, many-faceted depictions of society, but classified Fyodor Dostoyevsky as a hedgehog for his unwavering, deep, and unrelenting exploration of the human condition. In politics we may call those who are adept at parries, feints and clinches as foxes, while those who drive a stake in the ground and refuse to budge can be called hedgehogs.

While there are no hard and fast rules for classification, Kumar appears to be a fox who is seen by the public as such. Mamata Banerjee and Lalu Prasad are hedgehogs. Arvind Kejriwal is a fox who pretends to be a hedgehog. Modi is a hedgehog (in terms of his core ideological positions) who behaves like a fox in day-to-day politics.

Berlin classified Leo Tolstoy as a fox who tried hard to become a hedgehog in the latter half of his life, with mixed success. Can Kumar, the wily old fox, transform himself into a hedgehog, and can he time the transition right? The years till the Bihar assembly election of 2020 will indeed be decisive for this enigmatic Indian politician.

With inputs from Prof. Satish Jain.

Rohit Prasad is a professor at MDI, Gurgaon, and author of Blood Red River. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.

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