Bihar is on the cusp of a political realignment. Nitish, Lalu or BJP, all the prime movers, may not force a showdown immediately. Instead, each would like to tire the other out. Though the BJP might like the confusion to end fast so that Bihar can become an active participant in the PM’s Team India initiative for good governance.
Nitish is in no hurry, though his options are limited. On his own, he cannot hope to rule Bihar with his 16.8 per cent vote share. Lalu will not give him peaceful nights, and the game of brinkmanship now on full display has to end sooner than later. The BJP is Nitish’s best bet given his political proclivities, and the BJP has generously indulged him all this while, in spite of his ditching the party at the most crucial phase in its history in 2013. The BJP can aspire to return to power in the next poll on its own. But the state BJP leader, Sushil Kumar Modi, has a great rapport with Nitish. For two terms, the two famously played Laurel and Hardy as Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister. It is said that the documents for Sushil Modi’s revelations about Lalu’s alleged corruption cases are coming from Nitish Kumar.
He did not condemn the raids on the Lalu Parivar or the cases about their alleged benami properties. Rather, he repeatedly chided the Modi government for not taking decisive action against the corrupt. Sushil Modi keeps egging on Nitish to end the painful cohabitation with Lalu and his notorious friends, in whose presence the Chief Minister feels great discomfort. If Nitish joins the NDA, he can keep his chair as long as he wants – and share power at the centre. Nitish joining the NDA will further boost Narendra Modi’s image and give it renewed strength for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The NDA will become invincible in Bihar. In the last Lok Sabha, even without Nitish, and with all fighting separately, the NDA won 34 of the 40 seats simply based on Narendra Modi’s charisma.
The big loser will be the RJD. Lalu needs power to protect his cadre; some of its top men are in jail. So Lalu may not force a split. The split will not help Congress too, which is the third and junior partner. Nitish walking out will take the winds out of the Grand Alliance sails. It will also diminish the relevance and credibility of the Grand Alliance idea for 2019. That is perhaps the reason that the BJP is enticingly holding out a carrot. Nitish supporting the NDA candidate for President is clearly a game-changer. It has hastened the process of disintegration in the Grand Alliance, deprived it of its ideological veneer, and shattered its confidence. The argument of an anti-communal confederation now has no takers. Moreover, a wider spectrum of so-called secular parties, BJD, TRS, AIADMK, Jagan Reddy’s party, are all now supporting the NDA candidate for President, Ram Nath Kovind.
But it is unlikely that Nitish Kumar will take the blame for driving a division in the Maha-gatbandhan. He will let the boisterous storm troopers of the RJD create the conditions for a break. Already, not a day passes without the RJD making wild charges against Nitish, which forced the JDU general secretary KC Tyagi to issue a warning last week to not cross the limit.
For Nitish, politics is the art of survival. Or else he would not have stitched the Maha-gatbandhan with Lalu who was his sworn enemy. Neither the BJP nor Nitish has expressed the possibility of a tie-up in the near future. Going by his track record, Nitish is not the kind to upset the apple cart. Nitish carries more political weight than his real support base entails. By sheer vote percentage, his party came third and second in the number of seats in the assembly poll in 2015. But it is tempting that any two of the three parties in the state – RJD, JDU or BJP – can combine to make a majority in the state assembly.
While BJP leader Sushil Modi is assiduously wooing Nitish to come out of the “jungle” embrace of Lalu’s camp, Lalu’s overarching ambitions, the deteriorating law and order position, corruption cases against almost all members of Lalu’s family are proving too hot for Nitish to handle. The bonhomie of 2015 is missing now in the Maha-gatbandhan.
Nitish is very image-conscious. In fact, that is his only political asset. In the company of the BJP, from 1995 to 2013, Nitish cultivated a larger-than-life image which was sufficiently propitiated and massaged by the BJP. The BJP numerically was the main opposition, and the space of Leader of Opposition during Lalu Prasad Yadav’s long tenure was held by that party, but it conceded much advantage to Nitish for the sake of unseating the so-called jungle raj of the RJD. It was Nitish Kumar’s hope of playing a bigger role in national politics that forced him to part company with the BJP in 2013. The emergence of Narendra Modi as a political colossus on the national scene was not immediately digested by Nitish.
To his advantage, the BJP is more than willing to accommodate him. It has never denied that it is fond of Nitish. The BJP-Nitish experiment to liberate Bihar from Jungle Raj was a success. Nitish proved a good administrator. He once again pushed Bihar on the path of development. His political profile has so far been spotless.
Much water has flown down the Ganga between 2013 and 2017. Narendra Modi with an ever-cleaner image has emerged as the sole national leader. Nitish cannot hope to challenge Modi in the company of the motley crowd under Sonia Gandhi whose leadership in any case is still not ascertained. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has emerged a bigger player, and he has to reconcile to the role of Rahul Gandhi.
As a shrewd analyst of the evolving political options, Nitish has been positioning himself with extreme finesse. He supported demonetization when everybody in his ilk denounced it. He called for action against corruption and benami property when charges were hurled against the Lalu Parivar. He avoided all unnecessary association with the UPA quoting Lohia.
Lalu is not making it easy for Nitish. In the last six months, Lalu has given sufficient indications that he wants his son to become Chief Minister. His wife Rabri Devi has said Nitish is growing old and that he should make way for her son, who is Deputy Chief Minister. In the assembly, the RJD emerged the single largest party with 80 seats followed by 71 of Nitish and 53 of the BJP. In vote share, the BJP topped the others with 24.4 per cent against the 18.4 per cent of RJD, 16.8 of JDU and 6.7 per cent of Congress. A clash of ambitions rather than clash of ideologies seems to be wrecking the Maha-gatbandhan.