Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s shift from being allied to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to forming a government with the BJP was effected in barely 14 hours. The speed of the transition may make it appear as though there was a certain inevitability built in it after law enforcement officials started investigating cases of graft against RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family. This, however, is not the whole story. The seeds of this break-up lie in the nature of the Mahagathbandhan (an unlikely alliance of once bitter rivals) and the mandate it received in November 2015 with Lalu Prasad Yadav as the dominant partner. Ever since the grand alliance of Bihar took shape, one was well aware that it was only a matter of time that it splits. Having observed the primary players in the alliance for years, knowing how they functioned and what the dynamics were in this situation, one knew it wouldn’t last long. One and half years after Nitish Kumar took over as the chief minister of Bihar, the final nail on the coffin has been hammered in. Nitish Kumar is considered among the shrewdest politicians in the country. No shrewd politician allows pride to get the better of him. No shrewd politician sacrifices his entire career for an old political miscalculation. Nitish Kumar’s political miscalculation wasn’t his alliance with scam-ridden Lalu Prasad Yadav. His miscalculation can be dated to 2013, when his party withdrew from the NDA after the announcement of Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial candidature. Nitish didn’t think the NDA would make it past the halfway mark without him, and he certainly did not anticipate that the BJP will win a simple majority by itself.
In the state of Bihar, the 2014 parliamentary elections were a three-cornered fight. The BJP and its allies won 31 out of the 40 seats. In retrospect, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The three main players in Bihar, Nitish’s JD(U), Lalu’s RJD and the BJP, control a similar vote-share. If any of the two come together to fight an election, they win by a landslide. If it is a three-cornered fight like it was in 2014, factors like the Modi wave and anti-incumbency are enough to give one of the sides a slight edge, enough to win big.
After the 2014 elections though, Nitish couldn’t simply walk right back into the NDA fold. He faced internal dissent too for the huge losses his party had incurred. After being backstabbed by Jeetan Manjhi who replaced him as chief minister, Nitish could have chosen to fight the assembly elections alone and suffer the same fate. This would have rendered him a non-entity and effectively finished his political career. His sizeable vote-share would have once again, just as in 2014, amounted to nothing.
Nitish chose to ally with Lalu Prasad Yadav, because this was the only way he could save face and survive in government at the same time. The mainstream media’s analysis about the Bihar assembly elections in November 2015 was silly: people didn’t perceive Nitish as an alternative to Prime Minister Modi, the BJP didn’t run a terrible campaign, nor was Nitish a messiah in Bihar. It was simple arithmetic. Two of the major players had come together, and they won a thumping majority.
The mainstream media was quick to put Nitish on a pedestal, and projected him as the one who would lead the united Opposition against Modi in 2019. But knowing how shrewd a man Nitish is, it was unlikely that he would buy this hogwash. There were two reasons against his emergence on the national stage. The first of course was Narendra Modi’s popularity. Whether it was the surgical strike or demonetization, how popular Mr. Modi’s decisions were, was visible election after election. The BJP juggernaut is nowhere close to slowing down, and 2019 looks like a given now. The other reason was Lalu Prasad Yadav and his history of corrupt politics.
Among the factors that initially propelled the Nitish-BJP combine to power in 2005 was lawlessness, prevalent under Lalu and later his wife, Rabri who took the reins of the state after Lalu was sent to jail by the court. Lawlessness was institutionalized during their regime, and Nitish understood perfectly well that one of his mandates was to fight it. Nitish threw several criminals in prison, worked towards improving the law and order situation in the state and led a genuine crusade against crime. This was much appreciated, and his core constituency was satisfied. But running a government in alliance with corrupt Lalu, and him acting as the power behind the throne, Nitish’s efforts to fight crime have gone down the drain. Ever since he took over once again in November 2015, lawlessness has re-emerged in the state. Here one must be reminded of a sting by a TV channel in which Lalu was heard taking orders from Sahabuddin, a notorious criminal. It demonstrated the resurgence of the erstwhile ‘gunda-raj’ which eventually may have alienated Nitish’s core constituency.
After the BJP’s massive resurgence in Uttar Pradesh, it is becoming increasingly clear that 2019 will be a given for the saffron party. Moreover, to exert pressure on the grand alliance, BJP had deployed their rising star Yogi Adityananth to deliver Bihar for them. Hailing from the U.P-Bihar border and revered by every caste and class for being a yogi, he presented a huge threat to the grand alliance.
Lalu’s dubious deals
According to a report on news18.com trouble in the coalition heaven called Bihar Mahagathbandhan began two months ago when Lalu Prasad Yadav went around meeting a few top BJP leaders in New Delhi, forcing Nitish Kumar to start thinking of a split. Lalu was okay with him going back to jail. What he was afraid was his two sons getting charge-sheeted for corruption, both of whom started their political careers only in the last state Assembly election, said the report. Nitish tried to quietly carry on with the alliance even when the Supreme Court reopened the corruption cases against Lalu, but the RJD supremo’s efforts to strike a personal rapprochement with BJP was the last nail in the coalition coffin.
Trouble started when Lalu and his close aide and RJD MP Prem Chand Gupta met a few leaders in the Modi government. Mostly, Gupta met the BJP leaders, but then there were times when Lalu went along. The effort was to strike a deal wherein various investigations against Lalu’s family would be taken off, even if it came at the cost of Bihar government. Lalu was so desperate that he was ready to backstab Nitish Kumar. Lalu was hoping to cash in on the fact that Nitish had ended his 17-year-long alliance with the BJP before 2014 Lok Sabha polls, protesting projection of Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate. But as it turned out, BJP was not interested in Lalu’s offer as it didn’t see any political dividends in aligning with a scam-tainted politician. And somewhere both Nitish and Lalu failed in developing trust factor despite the successful election alliance after two decade-long rivalry in Bihar.
Nitish a canny politician
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is certainly a canny politician who can weigh up situations well. But in the aftermath of the recent CBI raids on the properties of his sworn-enemy-turned-ally-turned- enemy Lalu Prasad Yadav’s son and former deputy chief minister Tejasvi Yadav of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Kumar was faced with Hobson’s choice. If Yadav was allowed to continue as deputy CM, Nitish’s image would certainly have taken a beating. The unease in the grand alliance began to solidify when the JD (U) decided to back Ramnath Kovind of the NDA, instead of Meira Kumar, the nominee of 18 opposition parties, including the RJD and Congress.
Interestingly, when Nitish was sharing power with the BJP in 2012, he had backed Pranab Mukherjee against NDA candidate P A Sangma. A year later, he questioned the choice of Modi as the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP which eventually led to the breakup of his alliance with the BJP.
With escalating tensions among the ‘grand alliance’ in Bihar, Nitish Kumar took the step that some may have seen coming; he resigned as the Chief Minister. He went a step further and without hesitation accepted the support of the BJP and was sworn in as Chief Minister for the sixth time. BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi is his deputy. This step could have bearing on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and make it difficult for Opposition unity to stop the BJP in a key battleground state.
It seems quite clear that Nitish Kumar has kick-started the BJP’s political train towards 2019. The main point of governance of Nitish Kumar was “anti-corruption”, something Modi himself expresses in rallies. This decision by Nitish has helped the BJP’s anti-corruption campaign against the Opposition.
While Nitish is the Chief Minister, this is a good sign and a win for the BJP with respect to 2019. It is a definite political gamble; it remains to be seen how much will Nitish Kumar benefit. While Lalu and the Congress are left to pick up the pieces, it is more important and pertinent than ever that the Opposition comes up with a sure fire strategy for this crucial state as the BJP now holds the right cards.
By Nilabh Krishna