For the common man walking along the streets of Patna, there is no doubt about it. Despite the thick winter fog on Sunday, January 28, it became as clear as crystal: Nitish Kumar is a snollygoster.
"I resonate with what Shashi Tharoor called the man. A snollygoster. Nitish is a vile, unprincipled politician, and we feel betrayed. Every fellow who voted for the Janata Dal united in the last election, didn't want to see the BJP in power. We didn't press the button in favour of the BJP!" spluttered my colleague over his cappuccino.
Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had just walked out of his alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal, ditched the liberal politics of the INDIA tent, and waltzed into the arms of the right-wing BJP. The next day, without shame, he was sworn in as Chief Minister of Bihar for the ninth time, leaning on the shoulders of the people he recently accused of undermining the nation's fabric.
Over the past few months, citizen groups in Bihar have been coming together to devise strategies to counter the right-wing narrative. The overarching concern among social activists, democratic alliances, women's groups, and liberal-minded citizens is the Centre's systemic disregard for ethics and Constitutional values. They pinned their hopes on 'maha-gathbandhan' or The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance comprised of the regionally strong Nitish Kumar (JDU) and Tejaswi Yadav (RJD) as well as the Congress and the left parties. Several middle-class Christians who favoured the more urbane Nitish and his JDU over the rustic Lalu and his RJD compare him to a Judas who has betrayed the people's trust.
The convenor of the Bihar Nagarik Adhikar Manch (BNAM), a citizen's ecumenical and multi-faith group, spoke to me over the phone, with undisguised disgust, "These fellows in the INDIA alliance, are they just good for nothing? Nitish is a traitor. Congress and the other parties can't seem to come to a proper understanding. Are we just wasting our time trying to organize our people?"
Other political observers persuade us not to lose hope. Nitish Kumar's joining the BJP is not as big a deal as it is made out to be. Journalist and commentator Deepak Sharma says that the cracks are showing. He says Narendra Modi isn't sure the Ayodhya Ram Temple ploy is working with the masses. He points out that Kumar is seen as a liability within BJP circles. "Modi's guarantee has no guarantee," media commentator Ashok Wankhede declared. He argued that the inner circle knows that the Modi Guarantee is hollow, and that's the reason why it is so important to silence Nitish, Kejriwal, and Hemant Soren and to harass Lalu Prasad.
"Many of our young people will rally around Tejaswi Yadav and Rahul Gandhi because they bring fresh ideas. The minority groups can place their trust in them. They will stand strong against the right-wing forces," says Abhishek, an undergraduate student. Even though it has a stout track record of fighting the Hindutva right wing, the middle-classes generally are wary of the Rashtriya Janata Dal because of the 'Jungle Raj' image and over a decade of non-development during the Lalu Prasad regime.
"Personally, I feel that Tejaswi Yadav is a fine young man, and he is sincere. But he must shed the baggage of the past. Patna cannot forget the anarchy during his father's regime. The party image needs to change in order to gain a following among the educated middle class," says media practitioner and educationalist Amitabh Ranjan. "We are doing what we can," said AICUF mentor and professor Mario Martin, whom I bumped into at a voter enrolment campaign held recently at the Queen of Apostles Parish in Kurji. "We are trying to ensure that all citizens from our parish area, all those who have reached the voting age, are enrolled. We are helping them to fill up the online voter application forms. We appeal to them to use their votes wisely. And then we hope. And pray."
The new BJP-infused regime has worrying implications for minorities. "We have to be on the watch out for the rise of violence against Christians in rural Bihar," Mukund Singh, a worker with the RJD, told me. There was a good chance of a communal flare-up during the Holi season or even earlier, and the Muslims must be on their guard, another commented.
It's going to be an arduous journey ahead. The saffron flags perched atop street lamps and market stalls on January 22 are still fluttering. Snatches of aggressive-sounding slogans and songs can still be heard.
But as one commentator said, a democracy cannot work on blind faith alone. It is time to stand up and be counted.
Frank Krishner is a journalist, human rights activist, and media educator based in Bihar.