New Delhi: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar dumped ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Tuesday, but it was the BJP that laid the ground for it 20 months back — on 11 November 2020 — a day after the assembly election results were out.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP’s entire brass had gathered that evening at the decked-up BJP headquarters in Delhi for the ‘thank you’ event after the Bihar poll outcome.
The grand scale of celebrations seemed to be disproportionate with the electoral achievement. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had barely secured a majority — 125 seats in the 243-member assembly — and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) had received a setback, getting only 43 seats, down from 71 in the 2015 elections.
He would also have to humour small allies like Jitan Ram Manjhi and Mukesh Sahani, whose parties got just 4 seats each, but the government would be in a minority if either of them walked out. Besides, there wouldn’t be a BJP CM.
So, what was this grand celebration about? The message wasn’t lost on Nitish Kumar. He was said to be sulking in Patna as celebrations were taking place at the BJP headquarters in Delhi. The BJP, which secured 74 seats — up by 21 since 2015 — was obviously celebrating its emergence as the ‘big brother’ in its alliance with the JD(U), for the first time since they formed the government together in 2005.
JD(U) leaders told ThePrint that what hurt Nitish Kumar badly was the way the BJP “engineered” the JD(U)’s “fall”. The BJP denied it, but Kumar was said to be convinced that Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) Chirag Paswan was PM Modi’s ‘Hanuman’ who was sent to bulldoze the JD(U) house.
Chirag’s LJP won just 1 seat but was instrumental in defeating the JD(U) candidates on 25 seats. He hadn’t fielded candidates against the BJP.
No wonder, the joke in the political circles was that it was a “thank you-Chirag” event at the BJP headquarters.
If at all there was any scope of benefit of doubt about Hanuman’s Ram, it was over with the BJP’s grand celebrations, a signal that the party was happy about Nitish Kumar’s loss of face and political weight in Bihar.
Kumar got even with Chirag later, becoming instrumental in splitting the LJP and the Paswan family. It would take Kumar 16 months after the elections to get even with the BJP. Pitting Chirag Paswan against Kumar was a gamble that paid off for the BJP in the 2020 polls but proved counter-productive in the long run.
Gamble or blunder
In continuation of its strategy to corner Nitish Kumar, the BJP decided to drop Sushil Kumar Modi, who was Nitish Kumar’s deputy all through his chief ministerial tenures since 2005. The two enjoyed a great rapport and that ensured a smooth relationship between the two allies in running the government.
Sushil Modi was kept out of Kumar’s new cabinet and was replaced with two deputy CMs — political lightweights, relatively. Modi was brought to the Rajya Sabha but wasn’t inducted in the Union Cabinet, a move that was seen as punishment for his proximity with Nitish Kumar.
The third gamble or blunder the BJP high command played in Bihar was to make Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan the party’s interlocutor with Nitish Kumar, a role played by Arun Jaitley until his death three years ago.
JD(U) leaders close to Nitish Kumar confide that Pradhan was never cut out for this role even though he is a Shah confidant. Pradhan met Kumar in Patna in May but failed to address his concerns about BJP leaders constantly sniping at his government.
Nitish Kumar’s run-ins with BJP leaders, including assembly speaker Vijay Kumar Sinha, continued. The BJP badly missed Arun Jaitley in dealing with Nitish Kumar, especially when the party was also trying to consolidate and expand in Bihar. Tensions between the two allies were mounting and there was no one to address misgivings and apprehensions between the two, especially of Nitish Kumar.
Amid these tensions, Kumar’s suspicion about the BJP courting his ex-confidant R.C.P. Singh turned out to be the last straw, say JD(U) leaders. A minister from the JD(U) told ThePrint that the CM had “enough reasons” to believe that the BJP was using Singh, another Kurmi leader, to do to the JD(U) what it did to the Shiv Sena by using Eknath Shinde in Maharashtra. “You will see the evidence soon,” he said.
What’s perplexing is the BJP high command’s decision to further alarm Nitish Kumar by organising a ‘pravas’ of its leaders in all assembly constituencies — including those held by the JD(U), obviously — on 28-29 July.
It was like cocking a snook at Kumar, baiting him to take on the BJP if he could. Only Amit Shah and J.P. Nadda would know why.