One more step towards the formation of what is intended to be an omnibus anti-BJP front was taken the other day when Nitish Kumar, the Bihar Chief Minister, replaced Sharad Yadav as the head of the Janta Dal (United). Though Kumar denies that he is in the race for the prime ministerial office, all his actions point towards his seeking to fulfill that ambition sooner than later.
For someone who had cut his political teeth in the Lohiaite school of politics, which was fiercely anti-Congress, to readily sup with the family-run Congress Party of the Gandhis, to his overnight shedding of all opposition towards friend-turned-foe Laloo Yadav, Nitish has single-mindedly pursued the goal of uniting the anti-BJP forces on a single platform to attain his prime ministerial ambition. The fact that the grand alliance in Bihar won a famous victory in the recent Bihar Assembly poll seems to have further fortified Nitish to try and replicate the same model of aggregating all shades of opinion to give a united fight to the Modi-led ascendant BJP.
It is this quest which led to Nitish taking over the headship of the party, though he would continue to shoulder the onerous responsibilities of Bihar chief ministership as well. Yadav, who was party president for three consecutive terms, had in any case been reduced to a mere figurehead, with Nitish calling the shots for several years now. Indeed, it is a moot question whether Nitish will give Yadav another stint in the Rajya Sabha since his current term ended a few days ago.
Remarkably, Nitish had supported Yadav when the latter forced out George Fernandes as the JD (U) chief in 2006. Prior to 2006, Nitish had been a strong supporter of Fernandes. Quite clearly, as party chief Nitish will now be in a better position to try and rope in more groups to either join or ally with the JD(U) for a nation-wide anti-BJP alliance. Though the next Lok Sabha elections are not due till 2019, the effort of the JD(U) will be to expand its footprint in the intervening period outside Bihar. The Assembly election in UP next year will be the first test for Nitish. Speculation that Ajit Singh’s Lok Dal is ready to merge with the JD(U) provided Nitish yields one of the two Rajya Sabha seats from Bihar that JD(U) hopes to win in the biennial poll has some merit. Singh is an out-and-out political trader, ready to do business with anyone who would accommodate his modest ambitions. His immediate desire is to find himself an official address in the capital which a Rajya Sabha seat would straightaway grant.
For this, we are not surprised, he is ready to dissolve his small and shrinking outfit with Nitish’s JD(U). Another small party which is ripe for acquisition is Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha. When politicians find themselves out in the cold, they invariably lower their sights and are ready to do business with anyone offering a protective umbrella. Right now, JD(U) under Nitish has every right to feel on the upswing thanks to the huge Bihar win, but in politics nothing can be taken for granted.
The goal of an all-embracing unity of the anti-BJP forces is not easy. For in Bihar itself, Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, the bigger partner in the ruling coalition in the State, is not willing to surrender its separate flag and symbol for a merger with the JD(U). In fact, Lalu Yadav has strong reservations accepting Nitish as his leader, though for the Bihar Assembly he had conceded the post of chief minister. Indeed, the Congress, which was a marginal force in Bihar anyway, was happy to hang on to the coattails of the Nitish-Yadav duo in Bihar to win some seats, but it is unlikely that the party would be ready to fight the Lok Sabha election under the leadership of Nitish.
Simply put, are the Gandhis ready to relinquish their claim on the prime minister’s gaddi so that Nitish can make a bid as the leader of an omnibus anti-BJP alliance? Indeed, since the Assembly elections are due next year in UP, the first major test of binding together mutually hostile political players in the State will see Nitish faltering very badly. If Lalu Yadav is unready to work under Nitish, Mulayam Singh Yadav is certainly hostile towards him. And then you have to reckon with Mayawati. In fact, in the few months the RJD-JD(U) alliance has been in power in Bihar, simmering differences have come to the fore. Dr Lohia’s legatees might have given up on their basic anti-Congress faith, but personal ambitions burn brighter than anytime before. Those could see Nitish coming a cropper in his bid to lead an all-India anti-BJP front in the next parliamentary poll.