Nitish Kumar shows Ram is not enough in Bihar
The JDU chief minister's turncoat drama betrays nervousness in the BJP-led NDA too
The NDA in Bihar, now united again following Nitish Kumar’s latest somersault, is tipped by commentators to retain its Lok Sabha tally of 39 out of 40 seats from the state in 2024. Could they be in for a surprise, though?
The somersault this time has been not just by Nitish Kumar but also by the BJP and Modi. Kumar may have created political history by taking his oath as chief minister for the ninth time without ever securing a majority on his own—and possibly at enormous cost to his self-esteem and public image. But Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, who were badmouthing Nitish Kumar in public until very recently, calling him shameless and vulgar, have likewise had to swallow their pride to allow the NDA to come into power.
For the BJP, then, the Ram Temple is clearly not enough to win the requisite Lok Sabha seats in Bihar.
The Bharatiya Janata Party realised even before the consecration of the temple that it needed the plank of social justice and the support of the extremely backward classes—the most numerous in the state—to win in Bihar. Hence the decision to confer the Bharat Ratna posthumously on late socialist leader Karpoori Thakur, followed by yet another Operation Lotus.
Nitish Kumar, it is worth recalling, had hosted the first meeting of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) in Patna last year in June. He had thereafter travelled to various state capitals to coordinate between opposition leaders, called on Mamata Banerjee of the All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and in a way re-emerged as a potential prime-ministerial face for the opposition bloc.
Now it is being said that when both Banerjee and Kejriwal proposed the name of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge as INDIA’s face for PM, therefore, it came as a rude shock to Nitish Kumar.
On Republic Day, at the governor’s at-home in Raj Bhavan in Kolkata, the West Bengal chief minister had an ‘off-the-record’ conversation with the media present there. Asked to comment on Nitish Kumar’s imminent exit from the INDIA bloc, she was reported to have quipped, “Good riddance!” She also volunteered the information that it was she, along with Kejriwal, who had objected to Nitish Kumar being named the convenor of the Alliance. She had always harboured doubts about the Bihar chief minister’s commitment to the opposition’s cause, she added.
That Nitish Kumar had kept a channel open with the BJP was no secret. He had allowed Janata Dal (United) MP Hari Vansh to remain as deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, for one.
It is also worth recalling that he had expelled election strategist Prashant Kishor from the party, after having installed him as vice president himself. His only explanation in public was that he had inducted Kishor because Union home minister Amit Shah had asked him to. He also eased out his long-time friend and advisor Lallan Singh and made the versatile ‘Delhi insider’ K.C. Tyagi the chief party spokesperson. Pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were falling into place with each of these manoeuvres and the INDIA bloc could not have been unaware.
Meanwhile, the BJP had been building up pressure on Nitish Kumar since back in June 2023, when central agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate, the income tax department and the Central Bureau of Investigation were unleashed against ‘fund managers’ of the JD(U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in the state. Raids on the premises of people little known outside Bihar—like Gabbu Singh, Karru Singh and Radhacharan Shah, alias ‘Seth’, widely perceived as fund collectors for the party—culminated in the arrest of Shah and his son by the ED, the grapevine whispered in September. Simultaneously, the CBI was piling up pressure on Lalu Prasad and Tejashwi Yadav, summoning them yet again for questioning in cases that went way back to when Lalu Prasad was railway minister in the UPA government.
Commentators also believe that the incumbent Bihar chief minister’s advisors may have convinced themselves that 2024 was a done deal after the consecration of the Ram Temple. The party would be wiped out in the Lok Sabha election if it did not join hands with the BJP now, he may have been told. What’s more, his MLAs, poorer than MLAs in other states, needed money to contest the election and secure their political futures. A number of them apprehended that they would be dropped or that they would lose. They needed insurance, which the INDIA bloc was in no position to provide.
Whatever may have finally prompted the somersault this time, the fact is that it has been a humiliating exercise for Nitish Kumar nonetheless.
Hailed as ‘vikas purush’ in his first two terms as chief minister, when the UPA was in power at the Centre and Dr Manmohan Singh the prime minister, he has been struggling since then. He failed to persuade Modi to grant the status of a special state to Bihar even after he dumped the RJD in 2017 and stayed in bed with the BJP till 2022. His pleas to make Patna University a central university were also ignored.
The unkindest cut has been to accept two deputy chief ministers from the BJP this time. Nitish Kumar apparently wanted old friend and deputy Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP as his deputy once again. The suggestion was cold-shouldered. The two deputy chief ministers foisted on him by the BJP now, Samrat Choudhary and Vijay Kumar Sinha, have both been fierce critics of Nitish Kumar. When Sinha was speaker of the Vidhan Sabha, people doubtless remember, he had almost come to blows with the chief minister.
So how long will this uneasy and cynical marriage of convenience last? Above all, will it really help the NDA retain its Lok Sabha tally? Will voters in Bihar, betrayed once again, bless the NDA again? Above all, can Nitish Kumar stage another somersault or is this his last hurrah?
The Lok Sabha election will provide early indications but a new chapter looks likely to begin in Bihar, with new leaders.
What the NDA says before the Lok Sabha election about the caste census, reservations and prohibition—policies of which the BJP was earlier very critical in the state—will be interesting to listen for.
As for its chances, the BJP likely underestimated the Bihar voters in 2015. In 2020, Tejashwi Yadav ran a spirited campaign and come within a whisker of winning the election for the Mahagathbandhan. Nobody should be surprised if he manages to spring another surprise.
The INDIA bloc, which is being written off by many observers at the moment, may in fact have emerged stronger in the state for all the drama. The RJD and the Left, which have 16 MLAs in the Assembly compared to the INC’s own 19, will now benefit from more flexibility in seat-sharing adjustments and more room to campaign.