Chief Minister Nitish Kumar
has supported Narendra Modi
government's 'note ban'. He not only kept his party, the Janata Dal (United), away from Opposition's protests on Monday, but also advised his ally Lalu Prasad's two sons and ministers in his Cabinet, to do likewise.
That the two young Yadavs listened to Kumar should negate conspiracy theories that the Bihar
chief minister's support to demonetisation
is to keep Prasad in check and keep his own channels open with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It could also be said that Kumar has read the public mood on 'note ban' much better than other Opposition leaders.
President Amit Shah has thanked Kumar publicly for his support to 'note ban'. Kumar has shot back saying some media outfits are attempting to "politically assassinate" him at the BJP's behest, including planting false stories that he had met Shah recently.
Kumar has repeatedly denied all speculation of his ever befriending a BJP
that is led by Modi and Shah, primarily for their alleged roles in the 2002 anti-Muslim communal riots in Gujarat -- the reason he broke away from his alliance with the BJP
Ever since leading a coalition that defeated Modi-led BJP
in November 2015 assembly polls, Kumar is considered a potential prime ministerial candidate in 2019.
With her vociferous protests, some think West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress Chief Mamata Banerjee might have displaced Kumar for that role.
She is also likely to have more Lok Sabha seats at her command than would Kumar. Bengal sends 42 members to the Lok Sabha, while Bihar
elects 40. In this, Kumar will have to strike a pre-poll alliance with his 'grand alliance' partners, like Congress and Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. Kumar, therefore, cannot hope to have any more than 20 seats under his belt, while Banerjee has no such handicap.
On the flip side, Kumar has shown a proclivity to not take on Modi directly in the last one year. He has been critical of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), even giving a call for a "Sangh-mukt Bharat", an India free of the RSS, but rarely has had harsh words for Modi.
Instead, Kumar has restricted himself to campaigning across India for prohibition. Detested by those who claim themselves to be liberals, prohibition has traditional support from large sections of both Muslims as well as Hindus, particularly women. He has been challenging Modi to encourage prohibition, since the PM's home state of Gujarat has a ban on the sale of liquor for over 60 years now.
Kumar was also one of the first Opposition chief ministers to vociferously champion the cause of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) legislation.
So, Kumar's politics of the last one year has been difficult to discern.
What he has, however, done is to keep his good friend Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in good humour. Even Modi is unlikely to be too upset with him. This should ensure timely release of central funds for the Bihar
Crucially, last one year has also increased Kumar’s standing as a principled and reasonable political leader. In a situation of a fractious mandate in 2019, where neither of the two alliances might get enough seats to reach majority mark, many are likely to prefer a mild mannered Kumar to lead a coalition government.
If the BJP
falls significantly short of the majority mark but emerges as the single largest party, Kumar could also be acceptable to a non-Modi and Shah led BJP, and sundry other regional parties. But so would be leaders like Jaitley and Home Minister Rajnath Singh.