Has BJP’s Operation Nitish Begun?

Nitish Kumar has to make an existential choice: Between governance and politics, argues Aditi Phadnis.

Is the exit of Ram Chandra Prasad Singh (RCP to most, former Union steel minister) from the National Democratic Alliance government part of the collateral damage caused by strains in relations between the leaders of the Janata Dal-United and the Bharatiya Janata Party?

Or is he a symbol of how rapidly Bihar has gone to seed?

RCP’s term in the Rajya Sabha ended last month after Nitish Kumar refused him another term in the Upper House (it would have been his third) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hinted RCP should resign.

There was an unstated option — he could join the BJP. RCP rejected that. In that sense, he was a victim of politics.

But then, politics has always trumped governance in Bihar, although in Nitish Kumar’s first term as chief minister, which began in 2005, that was not the case.

Bihar was recovering from a spell of Lalu-Rabri raj, the base was low, and the smallest government effort seemed to yield big results.

Nitish Kumar made road building the primary infrastructure activity.

By introducing incentives for girls to go to school (free bicycles, free uniform, free meals, free school books…), Bihar’s dropout rates for girls fell by half.

The state was also the first in India (2006) to ensure 50 per cent reservation for women in over 8,000 panchayats in the state.

School buildings were refurbished, and teachers were appointed by the same panchyats that had women in command.

Nitish Kumar followed this up with imposing prohibition.

This could not have been done without a bureaucracy that was as committed to change as Nitish Kumar seemed to be.

One such member of the bureaucracy was RCP Singh.

He left the IAS (he was from the UP cadre) in 2010 prematurely and joined politics.

This was not a wild leap in the dark.

It was Uttar Pradesh Socialist leader Beni Prasad Verma who introduced Nitish Kumar to RCP.

Having been at JNU and later joining the IAS, RCP might have been the model Bihari: Especially as he was from the same Kurmi caste as Nitish Kumar, belonged to Nalanda, which is Nitish Kumar’s district, and was socially disadvantaged but defied the odds to reach where he did.

When Nitish Kumar became railways and agriculture minister in the Vajpayee government, RCP joined him in the ministry.

When Nitish Kumar eventually became chief minister in 2005, RCP moved to Patna as his principal secretary.

When he quit the IAS in 2010, he became a Rajya Sabha MP almost immediately.

In Patna, he was already known as the go-to man when the administration needed to be prodded into doing something.

In New Delhi, as the person handling the JD-U line and strategy, he came into contact with other political leaders, especially from the BJP.

When in 2016, he was given a second term as Rajya Sabha MP and also made leader of the party, it seemed that he had become an important pole of power in the party.

He was also made president of the JD-U.

Many IAS officers have left the service and joined politics. Many have become senior ministers. But he was likely the only retired IAS officer to have become president of a major political party.

At that time, it looked as if he was going nowhere but up.

However, untethered, RCP felt he could afford to take some things for granted.

One was the job he had been hired for: Managing the relations between the JD-U and the BJP.

When his bitterest rival, Prashant Kishor, was turfed out of the JD-U, his tweet identified RCP as the man who had engineered his exit.

‘Nitish Kumar, what a fall for you to lie about how and why you made me join JDU!! Poor attempt on your part to try and make my colour same as yours! And if you are telling the truth who would believe that you still have courage not to listen to someone recommended by Amit Shah ‘.

The indication was the RCP was an agent of Amit Shah. Nitish Kumar didn’t believe Mr Kishor.

RCP was made party president soon after and then sent to New Delhi as Union minister.

And then, as abruptly, his Rajya Sabha seat was taken away. His government bungalow on Patna’s Strand Road has been allotted to someone else.

And RCP’s ‘exclusion’ from the JD-U power structure is brutal and complete.

On the other hand, what has Bihar got by excluding him?

As Nitish Kumar grimly fights to control the BJP in the state, everything the BJP suggests by way of governance reform is ignored.

The latest is the Agnipath controversy. The biggest damage to the reform (whatever your views about it) was done through vandalism and violence by young men in Bihar.

Reform soon got embroiled in politics as senior BJP leader Hari Bhushan Thakur Bachoul named JD-U leaders Upendra Kushwaha and Lallan Singh, and also state Chief Secretary Amir Subhani, as being responsible for the violence.

Nitish Kumar holds the home portfolio.

Like other bureaucrat-politicians before him, Pyari Mohan Mahapatra in Odisha, for instance, RCP might vanish without a trace.

He might not. But Nitish Kumar has to make an existential choice: Between governance and politics.

Because trying to do both is simply not working.

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