Yet, Nitish Kumar got no time to savour the victory. There is no state, not even Karnataka, where political churning is faster than in Bihar. Nitish Kumar got one meeting with Amit Shah in Delhi after the result, wherein he was offered one cabinet berth for his party. Take it or leave it. A humiliated Nitish Kumar returned to Patna, seething. He expected at least the courtesy of a negotiation.
In an election rally speech in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said Biharis are “the most intelligent” people in India. Now, as the Bihar 2020 assembly election approaches, the Gujarati duo of Modi-Shah may well have tamed the Bihari intelligence.
Nitish’s Janata Dal (United) won two seats when it contested the 2014 Lok Sabha elections without an alliance with the BJP. So, the 16 seats it has won this time, it is clear, is thanks to its alliance with the BJP.
Given that the BJP agreed to contest an equal number of seats with the JD(U) in the Lok Sabha, why should it not demand the same in the Vidhan Sabha? Of course, it will, never mind the JD(U)’s assertion that it is the senior most of the National Democratic Alliance partners in Bihar. Take it or leave it, the BJP might say, knowing fully well that Nitish Kumar cannot return to his 2015 mahagathbandhan with Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress.
Paltu chacha can’t take a U-turn
Breaking that mahagathbandhan is going to haunt Nitish Kumar in 2020. Having complained of then-deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav’s corruption, how will Nitish Kumar go back to the RJD, even though the RJD’s Raghuvansh babu thinks deja vu is not a bad feeling.
Even if Nitish Kumar agrees to do so, how will he possibly offer the deputy CM’s post again to Tejashwi? And how will Tejashwi take it? The bitter public acrimony between both sides makes a rapprochement untenable. Having been called “paltu chacha” by Tejashwi, Nitish can’t possibly do his next paltu act in favour of Tejashwi.
Without something in hand, why would Tejashwi make the switch? He’s anyway been sulking so badly that he’s making Rahul Gandhi’s handling of defeat look better.
An RJD-JD(U) coming together will look ridiculous before the public eye. The people of Bihar will laugh at both of them and might end up voting for the BJP.
An assertive, dominant BJP with a powerful Modi government is an existential threat to Nitish Kumar and his party. The BJP may not throw the baby out with the bathwater anytime soon, but the timing will be of the BJP’s choosing. It has the upper hand now. Much will depend on the seat negotiation for the 2020 assembly election.
The BJP might contest the election with Nitish as the CM face, but its effort might be to win enough seats between itself and Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and get a simple majority. Having done so, it may discard Nitish Kumar after the results.
The fear of a dominant BJP making Nitish Kumar irrelevant must be giving him sleepless nights. He is flexing his muscles: he won’t participate in Yoga Day celebrations, increase his party’s footprint in the alliance government’s cabinet, revive the hoary demand of special status to Bihar that nobody cares about, let his vice president Prashant Kishor work against the BJP in West Bengal, and so on. Yet for all this muscle flexing, he has no bargaining chip with the BJP. He can’t threaten to go back to the RJD.
Divorce is unthinkable
Contesting the 2020 Bihar assembly election all by himself, with no alliance, is also not an option.
This will only help divide the opposition votes and bring the BJP to power in Bihar, giving Bihar its first BJP CM and reducing the JD(U)’s relevance to history books. Unlike Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar has never had the courage to contest the Bihar assembly election on his own. He gets the jackpot in any alliance but when he goes solo, he fails miserably. His caste base is too small, his party cadre non-existent.
His greatest asset is his own image, and that too is now taking a beating. The deaths of more than 150 children attributed to encephalitis are just the latest in a series of events that have highlighted how Bihar’s governance leaves a lot to be desired.
Too many young voters in Bihar have no memory of Lalu Yadav’s infamous Jungle Raj, and are therefore unable to make the comparison between Lalu and Nitish. In contrast to the Jungle Raj years, Nitish Kumar looked so much better that he was able to build a good governance image for himself. But now, Nitish Kumar’s story has become stale, and young, unemployed voters might easily be swayed by a call for a change of guard. Nitish Kumar, therefore, still needs the BJP’s shoulders to stand on.
He could, of course, leave the NDA anyway, in case he is being offered a threateningly low number of seats in the pre-poll alliance. Suicide is more honourable than execution. The result in both cases is the same.
Views are personal.