“I would like these four words to reach every home in the state in the next one year and become part of Bihari consciousness,” Nitish Kumar told his colleagues a few days ago. The four words he spoke of were: Gandhi, satyagraha, non-violence, and sampradayik sadbhav (communal harmony).

The chief minister of Bihar has turned to Gandhi in a big way in recent months. After the Manav Shrinkhala he organised in January, in which 30 million Biharis held hands in a 114,000-km human chain across the state in support of “nashabandhi” or prohibition, he is now celebrating 100 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle in Champaran. The year-long programme to celebrate Gandhi’s first satyagraha that mobilised impoverished indigo plantation workers in 1917 will be kicked off with Gandhians, socialists, non-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/Bharatiya Janata Party activists and thinkers from all over the country – “in fact all those attracted by Gandhian thought”, as a supporter put it – congregating in state capital Patna on April 10-11.

The significance of “Champaran 100” goes beyond the usual anniversary celebrations that political establishments indulge in from time to time.

Nitish Kumar has already established that Bihar can do these events with near perfection. When he organised the 350th anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh in January, he had leaders such as the then Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and present Chief Minister Amarinder Singh shower him with praise, as did the lakhs of Sikhs who came to visit Patna Saheb, the birthplace of the guru. “We have not seen such arrangements made by any government,” Amarinder Singh had said. Badal had complimented Nitish Kumar for organising the Parkash Utsav, personally supervising it to the last detail even though he is not a Sikh. Sikh jathedars had called the Bihar chief minister “Guru piara”. In one swift stroke, Nitish Kumar had won over the Sikh community, and its wealthy and influential diaspora abroad. From being viewed as unskilled labourers who travelled to farms in Punjab in search of work, Biharis were now being lauded in that state for their organisational and management skills, for the way in which they had put on the event.

The positions the Bihar chief minister has taken in recent months has led to many asking this question: What is Nitish Kumar all about?

Nitish-Modi equation

He did not oppose Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to demonetise high-value currency notes in November to curb black money, unlike other Opposition leaders. In fact, he invited their ire and prompted speculation that he had softened towards Modi – after having broken a 17-year-old alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party over Modi’s prime ministerial candidature ahead of the 2014 general elections – so as to keep his options open, and to rein in an assertive Lalu Prasad, whose Rashtriya Janata Dal is a partner in the government. On his part, the prime minister – who shared the stage with Nitish Kumar at the Parkash Utsav – complimented him on enforcing the liquor ban in the state, which has been welcomed by women. Women make up a sizeable section of Nitish Kumar’s support base.

As things turned out, and as the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election results on March 11 showed, Modi reaped a rich political harvest despite his demonetisation decision, which brought hardships and inconvenience to people and cost many in the informal sector losing their jobs. The decision convinced ordinary people that the prime minister was capable of talking tough and bold decisions and would do something good and dramatic in the future. Nitish Kumar – with his decision not to oppose demonetisation, only its implementation – had perhaps sensed the popular mood against black money and corruption.

An alternative narrative

It would be naïve to conclude that Nitish Kumar is all set to take on Modi for the country’s top job. He would, at best, represent 20 Lok Sabha seats, even if he were to win half of those in Bihar (after all, Lalu Prasad would get some too). And maybe a few more, if his Janata Dal (United) is successful in spreading its wings to other states as it plans to do.

At this stage, no party is in a position to mount a challenge to Modi’s BJP. Nor is there any instrument, in the shape of a front of like-minded parties, that could stop the Modi juggernaut. Or an alternative face that could click at the popular level.

Nitish Kumar worked to unite the Opposition in Uttar Pradesh, but his efforts came to nought. And an exercise of half a dozen regional parties regrouping as the erstwhile Janata Party came apart in the run-up to the Bihar elections in 2015, when Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party moved out at a critical moment – though the Grand Alliance forged by Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav went on to humble the BJP in the polls.

There are no signs of the Opposition parties picking themselves up, introspecting on their faults and failures, rethinking strategy, individually and collectively, on how they are going to meet the challenges that confront them today.

But most important of all, it is the absence of an alternative narrative to the one dished out by Modi and the “new BJP” under him that is dogging – and immobilising – the Opposition. Modi has destroyed the secular narrative as it existed in recent decades, perceived by large chunks of people as being synonymous with minorityism, and it has created an unprecedented reaction in the Hindus.

What Nitish Kumar is trying to do, with the various moves he has made recently, is to create that alternative narrative. Not in terms of the “communal versus secular” divide, or by resorting to what has been dubbed as a “soft Hindutva” agenda, but by reverting to Gandhi’s inclusive themes, and a secularism that goes back to “Ishwar Allah tero naam, sabko sanmati de bhagwan”.

His idea seems to also be to create an environment first, an alternative set of values and thought processes that could underpin Opposition politics, before the issues of leadership or an alternative instrumentality come to be addressed.

Nitish Kumar appears to be positioning himself as, in the words of a political wag, a “Gandhian socialist” as opposed to Modi, “who could be called a Hindu socialist”, marrying pro-poor rhetoric with hardcore Hindutva. But will it work?