Nitish Kumar is looking for a new role for himself, but is unable to figure out what it could be.
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar finds himself in a catch-22 situation, and there’s nobody else to blame for it. After pulling out of the Congress-RJD-JD(U) mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) 10 months ago and re-joining the BJP-led NDA, he seems politically boxed in.
At one point, he was considered the frontrunner to be the joint prime ministerial candidate for the opposition for 2019. But since then, he has lost much of his credibility. If he walks out of the NDA again, it will prove his political opportunism.
Beginning his career as a disciple of Jayaprakash Narayan’s brand of socialism in the 80s, Nitish joined hands with the BJP and served as the railway minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He became Bihar chief minister in 2005 with the support of the BJP. Then, in 2013, he broke his 17-year alliance with the BJP, formed the mahagathbandhan, and was elected for a third term in 2015, before abandoning his allies and returning to the NDA fold.
Why is JD(U) worried?
The BJP broke its alliance with Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP in Jammu and Kashmir recently, and that has got the JD(U) worried. There has been friction between the JD(U) and the BJP on various issues, including special category status for Bihar, flood relief package, defeats in bypolls and the recent communal clashes in the state.
The JD(U) is also peeved that BJP president Amit Shah ignored its chief, Nitish, while he met Uddhav Thackeray, head of its estranged Maharashtra ally Shiv Sena, as well as Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Badal for ‘smoother relations’. The JD(U) has no representation in the Narendra Modi cabinet at the Centre, unlike other allies.
The JD(U)’s latest worry is the seat-sharing formula with the BJP for the Lok Sabha polls next year. “We don’t want a ‘fait accompli’ at the last minute, we want to sort out things now,” said a JD(U) leader.
In 2014, while the BJP and its allies (Lok Janshakti Party and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party) won 31 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, the JD (U) won just two, the RJD four and the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party bagged two and one respectively.
What options does Nitish have?
The JD(U) leaders have criticised Nitish for rejoining the NDA without sorting out matters like seat sharing. Now, party leader K.C. Tyagi says the priority is to get an honourable seat-sharing deal. The JD(U) has 71 MLAs while the BJP has 53, and the former wants the deal on this basis, which would give it somewhere in the region of 20 seats. However, given the present mood of the BJP, this may be a difficult ask.
The second option is to grin and bear it, even if it’s a humiliating deal. With reduced bargaining power, the JD(U) may have to be satisfied with the BJP’s best-case-scenario offer of 10 or 11 seats. It could end up being a far cry from the last time the BJP and the JD(U) fought Lok Sabha polls together – in 2009, Nitish’s party had fought on 25 seats.
The third option is to remain within the NDA and build a pressure group with the other Bihar allies, the LJP and the RLSP. Nitish is simultaneously working on this plan.
The fourth is to go back to the mahagathbandhan. While breaking the alliance, Nitish had said: “My decision is in the interest of Bihar”. What stops him from going back for the same reason? The Congress’s state in-charge Shakti Singh Gohil even said: “The mahagathbandhan can be revived if Nitish Kumar snaps ties with the NDA”. But it will be difficult for Nitish to play second fiddle to Tejashwi Yadav, who is now calling the shots in the RJD, or for the latter to keep the door open for Nitish.
The fifth option is to go it alone. This is not a viable option because the NDA and the RJD and its allies have the edge in terms of caste arithmetic. While the RJD has strengthened its Muslim- Yadav vote bank, the BJP is getting stronger through counter polarisation, leaving the JD(U), which does not have a strong social base (except for the three per cent Kurmis), weaker. Nitish is heavily dependent on the Extremely Backward Classes, a constituency he has carved out for himself.
The sixth option is to advance the Bihar assembly polls, which are due in 2020. A section of the JD(U) is of the opinion that assembly polls should be held along with the next Lok Sabha polls, which might insulate the JD (U) as an expendable ally. But will Nitish want to curtail his term? Doubtful.
Nitish is hoping to get authorisation to deal with these issues at the crucial national executive meeting scheduled for 6-7 July, but there are no easy options. He is looking for a new role for himself, but is unable to figure out what it could be. The question for both the JD(U) and the BJP is how far can they go.
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