Post-honeymoon blues that await Nitish Kumar

With his latest political U-turn in joining hands with the BJP, Nitish Kumar may well lose his bargaining power within the NDA coalition. Moreover, he already risks losing the secular vote

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

Sudiep Shrivastava

This is the second and the concluding part of the comment ‘Why it is apt to call the Bihar chief minister ‘opportunitish’ , which was carried by National Herald on Wednesday. The first part can be accessed through this link.

Failure of ‎ Janata Parivar unity efforts

Lalu Prasad Yadav was keen on having a united Janata Parivaar by bringing all the parties together which were once part of the Janata Dal in 1990. It is necessary to recall that in the VP Singh-led National Front government, Janata Dal had 141 seats, in the Lok Sabha, mainly due to the pan-India presence of the allies.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan were the states where it had won seats to the Lok Sabha. A few meetings were held for the merger of all parties like Janata Dal (JD), JD(Secular), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party (SP), Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD), but Mulayam Singh’s own political ambitions meant that such an umbrella coalition couldn’t materialise.

Mulayam was especially afraid of Nitish’s popularity and viewed him as a challenger in a United Janata Parivaar. Nitish was quick to sense this friction and started to have reservations about the merger.

More seats of Lalu gives complex to Nitish

The stakes for all the political outfits in the Bihar assembly elections of 2015 were therefore pretty high. BJP had won Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections by contesting alone, which they had never done before. Barring in Delhi state election in 2015, when an extremely popular Arvind Kejriwal managed to reduce the BJP to three seats in the 70-seat assembly, no other party could stop the rise of the BJP.

The seat sharing arrangement in the Mahagathbandhan was done smoothly with 101 seats each for the RJD and JD(U), with Congress getting to contest on the remaining 41 seats. BJP, which was also keen on getting a majority in the state assembly, entered into an alliance with Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP).

Nitish would have thought that his “clean image” and previous work as Bihar CM would make him the most important cog in the wheel of Mahagathbandhan, calculating that the JD(U) would win around 75 seats out of the 101 it was contesting due to consolidation of the Muslim and Yadav votes. The defeat of the UPA in General Elections in 2014 and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s negative image possibly made Nitish Kumar confident of a strong JD(U) show in the alliance.

Several election analysts had then predicted that seats the RJD and Congress could hope to win would not exceed 50-55 and 20-22 seats respectively. However, a strong show by the two parties surprised the election pundits, more so Nitish Kumar.

The victory of RJD candidates on 80 seats and its emergence as the single largest party perhaps gave Nitish Kumar a huge complex, as he was used to being the dominant partner in Bihar’s ruling coalition, a right that Nitish could no longer claim. Congress, which managed to win 27 seats, was seen by Nitish as a more reliable ally than Lalu. Nitish’s good political equation with Rahul Gandhi and Congress’ Bihar unit gave Nitish all the more reason to trust Congress more than the RJD. However, JD(U) and Congress could only manage a combined tally of 98 seats, prompting Nitish to seek support from the RJD. Lalu’s two sons were inducted into the new Bihar cabinet, with Tejashvi Yadav as deputy CM.

‎Afterwards, Lalu Prasad Yadav started to explore a bigger role and started to cobble together a grand alliance at the national level, making Rahul Gandhi realise the importance of the RJD chief in the Modi-Shah era. With Gandhi reposing increasing trust in Lalu and also making overtures to the then Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav, Nitish seemed to have started feeling insecure as he probably realised that he wouldn’t get to play a bigger national role as he had originally thought.

The shift started

The result of Uttar Pradesh assembly elections in 2017 came as a jolt to the anti-BJP parties, with the BJP winning three-fourths majority. While Nitish would have felt relieved at the defeat of Akhilesh, the scale of the defeat seemed to have thrown him off guard too. With BJP’s victory and Yogi Adityanath becoming the CM, a perception began to build up that BJP would retain power at the Centre in 2019. It was at that point of time that Nitish Kumar started to say that he had no Prime Ministerial ambitions and nobody could become PM with hardly 15-20 MPs.

Still in two minds, Nitish Kumar nevertheless tried to gain relevance in the anti-Modi coalition as he met Congress President Sonia Gandhi to finalise a common Presidential candidate. Realising that Congress was taking time to reach a decision, Nitish decided that it was better for him to go with BJP‎. He was already in talks with BJP leaders in May, that paved the way for nomination of Ram Nath Kovind as NDA’s presidential candidate.

What happened next was a sham. Tejashvi's name appearing in an FIR may be technically right, but no one could deny that a young boy of 15 during ‎UPA-I, when the said Railway Hotel scam happened, or even a young man of 23, when the family company received and started developing the said tainted land, would have played any key role.

In Indian families, its the head of the family who usually calls the shots and does things in the name of the entire family. It would be foolish to expect a young son of any Indian family to ask the source of the money for the property the family has acquired. Nitish's "no tolerance for corruption” excuse would have been stronger had any scam under Tejashvi’s ministry been unearthed. In that scenario, even Lalu would not have been able to take a pig-headed position. Moreover, in such a scenario, Rahul Gandhi and Congress would possibly have persuaded the RJD for Tejashvi’s resignation.

As far as Rahul Gandhi’s role is concerned, his comment that “it was going on since last 3-4 months” and the subsequent attack from his detractors that he didn’t act in time to save the alliance is only a half truth. We must, and in all fairness, analyse as to what were the options before Rahul Gandhi.

Congress had only 27 MLAs and it could not have saved the Nitish Kumar government without support from the RJD. The RJD couldn’t afford to sacrifice Tejashvi as it would have been a surrender to the witch-hunt engineered by the BJP. Congress, also facing a similar witch-hunt from the Modi government and BJP, was justified in supporting Tejashvi. What is important here is that Tejashvi's FIR was not about any scam during his stint as deputy CM. ‎ Moreover, secularism, and not corruption, was the plank on which the Mahagathbandhan, and Nitish, had canvassed for votes during the state elections in 2015.

Nitish's reference to Rahul Gandhi publicly tearing the Ordinance designed to save Lalu was also uncalled for. Congress had already declined to remove Himachal Pradesh CM Veerbhadra Singh and one must remember that even Narendra Modi had not removed his Minister in Gujarat despite the court’s indictment in a mining scam. As a matter of fact by now Rahul Gandhi also must have realised that Politics had to be conducted in a political manner and which did not warrant pressurising a trusted ally to sacrifice much more than what was actually required. Arguably, Rahul Gandhi acted as a mature politician in this instance.

Among those who find fault with Rahul Gandhi are also a few who want Congress to be more democratic and rational in its functioning. The aforesaid desire is surely well intended but it is a matter of fact that none in the Congress rank and file would be accepted by all factions of the party. In that case, BJP's agenda of "Congress Mukt Bharat" would surely become a reality sooner than later.

The campaign against Rahul Gandhi is also being run by sections within the Congress leaning towards the BJP. They would have been happier if Rahul Gandhi had annoyed Lalu Yadav in the process and inflicted more long term harm to the secular politics of the Congress which is its only USP right now, despite having only 44 seats in the Lok Sabha.

It is a fact that if one partner in a marriage is determined to end the relationship, he or she makes an issue out of even the simplest of things. No counsellor can save the marriage in such circumstances. Here, Nitish was determined as he found love again with his “previous partner” and the result was obvious, so blaming Congress or Rahul for his alleged laziness does little justice to the truth.

Credibility of Nitish has Sunk

What is undeniable is that the credibility of Nitish Kumar has sunk to its lowest level. Till 2013 and even beyond that he commanded respect from BJP workers and BJP minded voters because of his image and anti-Lalu stance. After the 2013 breakup with BJP, his respect amongt among so called ‘secular’ voters shot up even beyond Bihar. Though he had ditched the BJP, the BJP-minded people still held him in high esteem, specially when he resigned as CM in 2014 accepting moral responsibility for the electoral debacle of the party.

His later act of dislodging Jitan Ram Manjhi was also not seen as hunger for power as most people believed that it was in the interest of the alliance. However, this time when RJD, inspite of getting more seats made him CM without any fuss and with there being no sign of any challenge to his authority in the foreseeable future, Nitish Kumar's summersault, political ‎divorce and re-marriage has exposed his real face of a power hungry leader who can take any stand to remain in power.

This has resulted in a big jolt to his credibility. While ‘secular’ voters are disappointed with him and blame him for betraying the cause, the BJP supporters, though celebrating, are now aware that the mettle of which Nitish Kumar is made of is not that strong.

This signal will drastically reduce Nitish's bargaining power in the NDA and he is unlikely to remain as politically strong as he was prior to 2013 or even prior to 2004 while being a minister in Vajpayee's cabinet. BJP with Modi and Shah at the helm will also look for an opportunity to swallow up JDU's political space sooner than later.

Nitish has actually joined NDA in order to remain CM of Bihar in the post-2020 scenario as he was afraid of RJD claiming the position ‎for Tejashvi Yaadav then. And since the larger vote share of the secular block would remain more loyal to Lalu Yadav, Nitish Kumar found it convenient to lead a NDA government in Bihar.

Challenges ahead to NDA in Bihar and parties like‎ LJP, RLSP and HAM‎

While Nitish seems to be soft on Jitan Ram Manjhi and will most likely make him a minister if and when the latter agrees to merge his party with the JD(U) in the near future, the space for Kushwaha’s RLSP and Paswan’s LJP has shrunk for sure. Nitish is annoyed with RLSP in particular and also sees Paswan as a possible challenger for dalit votes. Though he has extended an olive branch to Paswan by inducting his brother as minister, but Paswan is well aware of Nitish’s political U-turns as well as his political compulsion in marginalising parties like RLSP, LJP and HAM‎.

Similarly, Sushil Modi's prominence will not go down well among other top leaders of BJP’s Bihar unit. The Bhumihars, Thakur and Bramhins, who form the core vote bank of the BJP have never been comfortable with Sushil Modi being BJP’s main face in the state.

It would be interesting to see the next moves of these disgruntled BJP leaders. It should also not be forgotten that in 2020, Nitish Kumar would be facing anti-incumbency after three full terms as Bihar CM.

With Tejashvi and Lalu Yadav being targets of the ongoing witch-hunt, the general election of 2019 and state elections of 2020 will be electoral battles to watch out for.


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