Patna: Coalition partners in Bihar, the BJP and the JD(U), are sparring and the two persons who used to broker peace between them are not around — Arun Jaitley, the former union finance minister, who passed away last month, and Prashant Kishor, the poll strategist who had become JD(U) vice-president on Amit Shah’s recommendation but has now moved to Kolkata to help Mamata Banerjee.
In the absence of these two, tensions between the coalition partners are growing a year ahead of the assembly elections, even though they continue to swear by their alliance.
The latest among the host of issues that have triggered rifts between the two is the BJP’s demand for a national register of citizens (NRC) in Bihar.
A senior BJP leader and minister in the Nitish Kumar government, Vinod Singh, wanted an NRC in Bihar to expel “Bangladeshi infiltrators”. The JD(U), however, dismissed the demand, saying there are no illegal immigrants in Bihar.
Earlier, the JD(U), which has been seeking to woo Muslims, distanced itself from the BJP-led central government’s decisions regarding the criminalisation of triple talaq and nullification of Article 370.
JD(U) leaders say their party is missing Jaitley more than Kishor, whose absence didn’t have any bearing on the party’s performance in the Lok Sabha elections — the party won 16 of the 17 seats it contested.
It was Jaitley on whom the chief minister depended to clinch deals with the BJP leadership.
The BJP and the JD(U), which was then the Samata Party, had a tie-up right from 1996.
But it was the entry of Jaitley in Bihar politics in 2005 as a spin doctor that turned the NDA formidable enough to defeat the once-invincible Lalu Prasad in the assembly polls.
In 2005, the state had two assembly elections, after the first one, in February, threw up a fractured result.
The two parties didn’t contest the first election as allies, but came together for the second one. Before the November polls, Jaitley convinced the BJP leadership to project Nitish as the CM candidate to lure non-Yadav backward castes.
He also convinced both the BJP and the JD(U) leadership that in the seats where the JD(U) came second and the NDA third, the former should be fielded. The move paid rich dividends as the NDA got more than 50 seats it had not won in the February polls, unseating Lalu.
Before Nitish left the BJP in 2013, Jaitley had tried to convince him not to snap ties.
The JD(U) separation weighed heavily on Jaitley’s mind. According to BJP leader N.K. Singh, the chairman of the 15th Finance Commission, who was then a JD(U) MP, just before the JD(U) split with BJP, when he and Jaitley got together for dinner, the latter remarked that it was their “last dinner as allies”.
Four years later, Jaitley played a key role in negotiating Nitish’s return to the NDA fold.
Senior RJD leader Abdul Bari Siddiqui, a minister in the erstwhile Grand Alliance government formed by the Congress-RJD-JD(U) coalition, told ThePrint about a car trip with Nitish just before the chief minister exited the alliance.
Nitish, he said, was having an “unusually long talk with Arun Jaitley”, who was finance minister at the time. As Nitish returned, Jaitley played a role in convincing the BJP brass to give Nitish equal number of seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Nitish acknowledged as much during a meeting held in Patna on 31 August to mourn Jaitley.
“If I have had the opportunity to serve the people of Bihar, it was largely due to Arun Jaitley, and I will never forget it in my life,” he said. “Whenever there were differences, Arun Jaitley showed that they can be dealt with through talks.”
He also announced that Jaitley would be honoured with a statue in Bihar, and his birth anniversary marked every year with a state function. It was an honour he had extended to another BJP stalwart, Sushma Swaraj, who also campaigned in Bihar and died days before Jaitley.
With Jaitley gone, sources close to him say, Nitish has lost his most trusted and reliable friend in the BJP.
“Nitish does not enjoy the same level of friendship and trust with Amit Shah. With seat-sharing for the assembly polls yet to be decided, Nitish will miss his friend the most when the issue comes up,” said a state minister and JD(U) member.
“Nitish was not able to convince the present BJP leadership to give him additional ministerial berths during the Union Cabinet formation,” the minister added. Following this disagreement, the JD(U) had bowed out of the Union Cabinet altogether.
The minister also pointed out that the JD(U) and the BJP were going through a rough patch.
“The JD(U) and the BJP are on different pages on NRC, triple talaq and Article 370. It happened while Jaitley was there, but we always knew that words of sanity would come from the top from Jaitley.”
Poll strategist and JD(U) national vice-president Kishor has been out of Bihar politics since 29 March, when he tweeted: “In Bihar, NDA is firmly contesting under the leadership of Hon’ble Modiji and Nitishji. The responsibility for electioneering and management by JD(U) is on the strong shoulders of Shri RCP Singhji, the preferred leader of the party. My role in this early stages of my politics is learning and collaborating.”
While he cheered the role of Rajya Sabha member R.C.P. Singh in the tweet, Kishor is said to have been less than pleased that the Nitish confidant was getting the major say in electioneering while he was sidelined.
Kishor has since been working for NDA rival Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and its ally Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.
However, their recent poster war with the RJD has left a lot of JD(U) leaders missing Kishor.
The poster war started Sunday, when a new hoarding was installed outside the JD(U) office in Patna with the message “Kyu Karey Vichar, Theek Toh Hai Nitish Kumar (Why think of an alternative, Nitish Kumar is OK)”. The hoarding was allegedly put up by R.C.P. Singh’s supporters. The RJD then installed its own take on the slogan: “Kyu Na Karey Vichar… Bihar Jo Hai Bimar (Why not think of an alternative, given that Bihar is ailing)”.
A section of JD(U) leaders feels that the poster was unnecessary at this point of time, and its message questionable.
“Elections are more than one year away and the wording of the slogan was not good. It seems as if Nitish Kumar has been projected as a ‘kaamchalau (passable) leader’,” said a senior JD(U) leader.
The leader pointed out that Kishor had coined far better slogans for Nitish in 2015, like “Bihar Mein Bahar Hai, Nitish Kumar Hai (Bihar is shining because of Nitish Kumar)”.
“Prashant would never have done this at this time,” the minister said. “He knows that there are several hurdles that come before alliances take concrete shape (and would not have generated a controversy).”
When he joined the JD(U) in September 2018, Nitish asked Kishor to lure the younger generation towards the party. Kishor met students, young panchayat and ward representatives, and managed to make the JD(U) youth wing win the election to choose the president of the Patna University student union, which is regarded as a citadel of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the RSS’ student wing.
“Since Prashant left, meetings with the younger generation of Biharis have virtually come to a standstill,” said a JD(U) leader, stressing that when it comes to building election strategies for the JD(U), there is no one who can match Kishor.
Nitish, however, is said to no longer have the confidence of Kishor as he did in 2015. Even so, Kishor has not been removed from his post despite having been away from Bihar politics for over 17 months.
“If the political situation requires, he may be recalled during the assembly polls,” said the aforementioned JD(U) minister.