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While his competitors are battling negative public perceptions because of their antics in the run-up to the presidential election, Nitish Kumar has proved to be the shrewdest of the regional satraps jockeying for a starring role in the next government.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar must have rejoiced, silently of course, when RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat locked horns with him over the prospect of his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi being projected as the BJP's prime ministerial face in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He could not have hoped for a better certificate for his secular credentials than a sermon from the Sangh's sarsangchalak on "vote bank" politics.
The row over Modi has come as a boon for Nitish in his bid to emerge from the shadow of the BJP to play a larger role in national politics after the next general election. He was Mr Development already, after government figures put Bihar as India's fastest growing state for the second year running in 2011-12. Now he hopes to capture the secular plank as well for wider acceptability across the political spectrum.
Although the Bihar CM has stated that he is not in the race for the PM's post (" I cannot even dream of that high office, " he told the Economic Times in a recent interview), many believe that he could emerge as a consensus choice to lead a non-BJP, non-Congress coalition of smaller parties if neither of the two national parties wins enough seats to stake their claim. It would be a replay of the short-lived United Front experiment of 1996.
Nitish has certainly proved to be the shrewdest of the regional satraps jockeying for a starring role in the next government. While his competitors are battling surging negative public perceptions because of their shenanigans in the run-up to the presidential election, Nitish has managed to remain unscathed. In fact, the war of words over Modi has singed the BJP's image as a coalition leader while earning Nitish brownie points with the secularists.
LET'S TAKE A LOOK AT THE COMPETITION. . .
Trinamool chief and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee reinforced her enfant terrible image by overplaying her hand to stop finance minister Pranab Mukherjee's nomination as the UPA's candidate for president. Worse, she also exposed her naivete in backroom dealings after she was outwitted by both Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Congress. A wilier politician would have cut her losses and saved face. Mulayam Singh had risen like a phoenix from the ashes after his stunning comeback in the recent UP assembly elections. But all the old doubts about his unreliability and cunning ways have resurfaced after he unceremoniously dumped Mamata to cut a deal with the Congress on the president's election. As leader of the ruling party in India's most populous state with the largest number of MPs in the Lok Sabha, Mulayam remains a force to contend with. But he will have to do two things if he is aiming for the PM's post. One is to convince potential allies that he can honour a bargain once it's struck. The other is to shore up governance in his home state so that fears of lawlessness and underdevelopment don't cast a shadow on his future plans.
Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik had positioned himself well as a possible leader of a third or fourth front after he successfully mobilised regional parties to oppose union home minister P Chidambaram's plan for a national counter terrorism centre. But just as he was flying (literally, because he had gone to London to meet potential business investors), he was grounded by a rebellion at home. His trusted (former ) aide, Pyari Mohapatra, rounded up dissident MLAs and threatened to bring down Patnaik's government. The CM had to cut short his London visit and fly back to quell the revolt. His national ambitions are on the backburner for the moment while he fights the fires in his backyard.
The fourth contender, Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, is not out, but her savvy image has taken somewhat of a beating after she failed to position expelled NCP leader P A Sangma as the presidential candidate of a united opposition. It seemed to be a clever move but it never really took off because Jayalalithaa, otherwise a clever and mature politician, was unable to read the political tea leaves correctly. She relied on the BJP to see her game through, which was unwise because not only did the party take too long to respond to her overtures, the NDA itself has cracked on the choice of the next president with Shiv Sena and Nitish's JD (U) refusing to bow to the BJP's diktat.
Nitish, on the other hand, has moved in a measured manner, concentrating on consolidating his position in Bihar rather than demonstrating national ambitions. There is a farcical quality to the quarrel on Modi because the Gujarat CM is a long way from being anointed his party's PM candidate. But as long-time Nitish-watcher Shaibal Gupta of the Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute says, "He (Nitish) has emerged as the most prominent voice of secular and development politics. He has delivered on development by making Bihar the fastest growing state. And if he breaks with the BJP on the Modi issue, he will get support from a large section of Muslims in Bihar. He then becomes an important national player. " Much of the seeming fractiousness on display these days is political positioning in preparation for the widely expected uncertain post-poll scenario after a fractured verdict. With both the national parties, Congress and BJP, showing clear signs of decline, especially after their humiliating defeat in UP, it's only natural that regional satraps should begin jockeying for what they believe will be their moment in the sun. Perhaps they need to remember late British PM Harold Wilson's famous quote: "A week is a long time in politics."
The next general election is almost two years away (unless an unexpected development brings down the Manmohan Singh government before its time). And that is a very long time indeed.
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