After having fought the Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the BJP in Bihar and won 16 of the 24 seats it contested, the chief minister of Janata Dal (United), Nitish Kumar, is evidently disillusioned for having been offered just one ministerial position at the Centre.
Nitish may deny it but the writing is on the wall. With Assembly elections just a year away, the alliance has started on a rocky road. As if by retaliation, Nitish has expanded his State council of ministers and made sure that the new ministers in the coalition are all from his party and none from the BJP.
There is indeed more to the expansion than meets the naked eye and the seeds have been sown for a repeat ultimate estrangement, but it is premature to predict how long the alliance will last.
There is no denying that Nitish does not have many options. Fighting the Assembly polls alone may leave the field open to the BJP, the other option of forging an alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) looks remotely considerable; that Nitish will settle for nothing less than holding on to the State power.
The Congress is in utter disarray, so any tie-up with it may well prove suicidal. That heightens the need to stick to the alliance with the BJP which brought rich dividends to the JD (U) in the recent Lok Sabha polls. Consequently, there may be some muscle-flexing but an electoral arrangement with the BJP seems a desperate need for the Assembly elections as things stand.
Another signal of JD (U)’s anger over the Central offer is that Nitish’s party has decided to go it alone in elections to State assemblies in four states — Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Haryana and Delhi. That in effect means that it will fall within NDA’s hold only in Bihar. Though the party is of little consequence in these states, the message is loud and clear.
There is an added factor of divergence with the BJP in so far as the JD (U)’s newly-appointed national vice-president, Prashant Kishor, has taken on an assignment with the Trinamool Congress (TC) of Mamata Banerjee to advise it on its election strategy for the next Assembly elections. Considering that TC and BJP are at dagger’s drawn, this is a challenge to BJP that the NDA can hardly afford to ignore.
While JD (U) has been pretending that it has no control over what Prashant Kishor does outside the JD (U)-BJP alliance in Bihar, it surely is a rebuff and challenge to the BJP. All this has not left a good taste with the BJP high command, whose attitude towards JD (U) can only harden with such tactics.
All in all, there is no mistaking the fact that Bihar is a hotbed of politics. That it has 40 seats in the Lok Sabha invests it with the status of a crucial state. There are intense political rivalries and politics impinges on myriad areas of activity.
Political consciousness among the people is very acute and intertwined as politics is with the caste factor, there is an interplay of the two in day-to-day life heightened at the time of elections.
After the corrupt leadership of Lalu Prasad Yadav, as revealed in the plethora of cases against him which have led to his conviction and jail, a whiff of fresh air came on the Bihar scene with a relatively honest Nitish Kumar assuming the reins. But to survive at the helm in a State which is politically-imbued, Nitish needed to be worldly wise with earthy guile that could combat his adversaries. That Nitish has survived for so long is an index of his ability to weather all kinds of storms and to use opportunism as a trump card when needed.
But is Nitish cut out for bigger things? A few years ago, he was being seen as a possible contender for prime ministership. But in the Bihar assembly elections of 2015, it was Lalu’s RJD that got more seats than Nitish’s Janata Dal (U) and the two parties together formed the government in which Nitish was chief minister essentially because Lalu had cases pending against him.
That Nitish had to run a government with both sons of Lalu in key ministries was a measure of his helplessness. But the arrangement ended with Nitish retaining his leadership position, propped up by the BJP which had once run a government with him before their estrangement.
Back now in alliance with the BJP, Nitish anticipated well the victory of the NDA in the recently-concluded Lok Sabha polls. He bargained successfully with the BJP to get half the contested seats but that is where his leverage ended.
After the polls, the Bihar leader wanted proportional representation in the council of ministers at the Centre but was spurned with just one ministerial berth like all other partners in the NDA regardless of their strength.
There is no denying that the BJP is in far too strong a position to get browbeaten by Nitish’s subtle muscle-flexing. It has built bridges with Andhra chief minister Jagan Mohan Reddy and any deal with the latter in Parliament can more than neutralise any withdrawal of JD (U) support. It is also a fact that breaking the alliance with BJP in Bihar could cost JD (U), dear. Nitish indeed needs to tread warily.
The writer is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.