The return of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) fold will strengthen, in every likelihood, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign for a renewed mandate in the 2019 General Elections to Lok Sabha. However, in the process, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have to pay a price for Nitish’s return. Its onward march in Bihar is going to be arrested, thereby impacting its long-term prospects in one of the more politically significant states of the country.
BJP, or for that matter the NDA, did lose badly in the 2015 Assembly election in Bihar when Nitish had parted ways. But despite being the loser, the BJP had, as a matter of fact, emerged as the largest political party in the state. Let’s go by some hard facts. On a single-party basis, the BJP managed a vote share of nearly 24.8 percent, which was higher than 18.5 vote share of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rastriya Janata Dal (RJD) and 16.7 per cent of the Nitish’s Janata Dal (United) or JD(U). The Election Commission data shows that BJP got over 91.5 lakh votes on a consolidated basis, followed by RJD’s 67.9 lakh votes and about 62 lakh votes for JD-U. The Indian National Congress, which fought elections as part of the grand alliance with Lalu and Nitish, could manage a vote share of just 6.7 percent.
In the 2014 General Elections to Lok Sabha, the NDA had swept the polls in Bihar by securing 38.8 percent votes. It had won 31 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats. But in the 2015 Assembly election in Bihar, the NDA managed just 34 per cent votes. Given the well-known fact that there will always be a difference in the voting percentages between general elections and Assembly polls, the NDA’s overall vote-base in Bihar was more or less fine. It lost because Nitish and Lalu, who had fought separately in the general elections, came together along with Congress to fight the Assembly elections. Arithmetically, their alliance was bound to prevail over the NDA. And that was exactly what happened.
However, the point remains that even in victory, Nitish suffered a great defeat. In fact for this writer, Nitish was the biggest loser in the 2105 Assembly election. For the last 11 years, he had been the undisputed numero uno (number one) leader of Bihar, but not after 2015. He might have remained the Chief Minister of Bihar, but he was no more the number one leader with Lalu Prasad Yadav and RJD emerging as the single largest party in the so-called “Mahagathbandhan”. In the 2010 Bihar Assembly election, JD(U) had won 115 seats. But in the current Assembly, Nitish’s party has just 71 seats, which means JD(U) suffered a loss of as many as 44 seats. Secondly, from being the premier political party in the state, JD(U) had been reduced to a third place after BJP and RJD.
Viewed thus, by returning to the NDA-fold, Nitish seems to have recovered all his losses of 2015. He is now the number one leader of Bihar in the actual sense of the term. On the contrary, the BJP will now have to make compromises and cede space to Nitish and JD(U). Take for instance, the fact that in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, BJP got 22 MPs from Bihar. But under the alliance with Nitish, between 2004 and 2014, BJP was allowed to contest only on 15 seats. Now imagine what will happen during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls ? Nitish’s JD(U), which has only two Lok Sabha MPs now, will demand more seats; if not so, at least on the basis of a parity with BJP. Obviously, the BJP will be the loser.
It is perhaps underplayed that Nitish has always risen high in the company of BJP and not the other way round. He became the chief minister of Bihar for the first time in 2000, though for exactly a week (3 March, 2000 to 10 March, 2000) when the BJP-led government at the Centre (under Atal Bihari Vajpayee) released him from the Union cabinet to just have a chance towards an NDA regime in the state. That time, BJP had 39 seats in the Bihar Assembly whereas Nitish’s party had only 18 seats. For that matter, in the 1999 General Elections to Lok Sabha, the BJP had 23 Lok Sabha seats from the then undivided Bihar, whereas JD(U) had only eight. In the 1998 General elections, BJP had 19 Lok Sabha MPs, against 10 from Nitish’s then Samata party.
The point that emerges from above data is that despite the fact that Nitish has been much behind in terms of share of support-base, the BJP leadership has always promoted him. And to such an extent that after he became the chief Minister with a comfortable majority in 2005 in alliance with the BJP, the latter, by and by, ceded space to become a junior partner in every sense of the term. In other words, until 2005, the BJP was the largest NDA constituent in Bihar, but the then Vajpayee-LK Advani leadership promoted Nitish to the extent that the JD(U), the younger brother to the BJP in Bihar, became the elder brother.
It should also be borne in mind that Nitish, along with his mentor George Fernandes, has always been with the BJP since 1995. They have contested all elections — Assembly or Lok Sabha — together, save the one in 2014, when Nitish parted ways on the ground that a “communal Modi” as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was not acceptable to him.
As an observer of Indian politics, one has to admit that contrary to the common perceptions, BJP (or its previous incarnation, Jana Sangh) has always been an honest and accommodative partner in the game of alliance politics, but this gesture of the party has rarely been reciprocated. Despite constituting the largest block in the Janata Party after the 1977 elections, it had inadequate representations in Morarji Desai’s cabinet. It had an alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party, once, in Uttar Pradesh, but BSP chief Mayawati stabbed the BJP. In 1998 General Elections to Lok Sabha, Biju Patnaik was no more in the scene and all over Odisha people were talking of Vajpayee. And yet the BJP willingly became a junior partner to the newly formed Biju Janata Dal (BJD) led by Naveen Patnaik. In Maharashtra, as long as Shiv Sena was the elder brother, BJP did not have any chance to grow. The party separated in the last Assembly polls of Maharashtra because of Shiv Sena’s reluctance to give adequate seats. The BJP proved its worth by bagging more than double seats than the hitherto elder brother.
It is really unfathomable why Nitish left NDA before the 2014 polls. It is a dubious theory that as a “secular” leader, Nitish could not remain in the NDA with Modi being projected as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Of course, Nitish’s discomforts with Modi were not new, given the importance of the Muslim votes in Bihar. But then Nitish had been doing business with BJP for long and BJP had not become “communal” all of a sudden because of Modi. In fact, Nitish was the railway minister when Gujarat riots took place in 2002. As pointed out, Nitish has been one of the oldest allies of BJP, and this alliance predates even the alliance between the BJP and the Shiromani Akali Dal. Nitish fought elections along with BJP in 1996 General Elections to Lok Sabha when Shiva Sena and the Haryana Vikas Party of Om Prakash Chautala were the only allies of BJP.
Considering all this, it is a “homecoming” for Nitish to the NDA fold. And if, history is any indication, he will gain more than the BJP in the process.
By Prakash Nanda