Patna: In 2013, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his Janata Dal (United) split from the BJP. Two years later, he joined hands with arch rival Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress to form the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance). In 2017, he turned his back on the mahagathbandhan and returned to the BJP, earning the moniker “Paltu Ram (turncoat)” from an infuriated RJD chief, Lalu Prasad.
Fast forward to 2022, and Nitish appears to be giving jitters to alliance partner BJP all over again.
Tuesday is set to be a crucial day for Bihar politics, with both the JD(U) and the RJD calling a meeting of their legislators amid speculation about a possible reunion.
“JD(U) legislators are going to authorise the CM to make any decision in favour of the party,” a JD(U) legislator told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
Former chief minister Lalu Prasad’s RJD, sources say, is going to do the same for Tejashwi Yadav, who is Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the Bihar legislative assembly.
The RJD has 79 MLAs, the BJP 77 and the JD(U) 45 in Bihar’s 242-seat assembly (1 seat is vacant). Apart from one Independent MLA, other parties with representation in the assembly are Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) with 4 MLAs, Congress with 19, Left parties with 16, and Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM with 1.
RJD national vice-president Shivanand Tiwari told ThePrint that his party would support Nitish Kumar if the latter decides to sever ties with the BJP.
However, senior JD(U) minister Vijay Kumar Choudhary said that the ruling coalition in Bihar faces no threat. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, while holding his junta darbar in Patna Monday, did not comment on the developments.
‘Double engine’ out of steam?
On Sunday, CM Nitish Kumar shared the stage with Deputy CM Tarkishore Prasad and BJP minister Mangal Pandey at a function organised by the government to promote handicrafts.
“The CM did not even exchange pleasantries with them. It is typical of Nitish Kumar when he is in withdrawal mode,” said a senior BJP leader, who did not wish to be named.
(3/4) उनके द्वारा खपत की गई बिजली पर विद्युत अनुदान दिया जा रहा है। मलबरी सिल्क के उत्पादन को बढ़ावा देने के लिए भी राज्य सरकार द्वारा सहायता दी गई। तसर सिल्क उत्पादन के लिए किसानों को तसर विकास योजना का लाभ दिया गया है। pic.twitter.com/kORh3Xyimg
— Nitish Kumar (@NitishKumar) August 7, 2022
Alarmed by his actions, state BJP leaders met minister and JD(U) leader Vijay Kumar Choudhary late Sunday evening. But another BJP leader told ThePrint that “Choudhary expressed ignorance over any development”.
Union Home minister Amit Shah, speaking at a party meet in Patna last month, had said that the “BJP-JD(U) will contest [Lok Sabha] elections together in 2024, Narendra Modi will be BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.”
While Nitish Kumar has maintained a studied silence, remarks by JD(U) national president Rajiv Ranjan Singh alias Lalan Singh at a press meet in Patna Sunday evening were seen as a potshot at the BJP.
Singh was reacting to statements made by former Union minister R.C.P. Singh, who resigned from the JD(U) Saturday after the party sought his response on graft allegations against him.
“There was a move to create an RCP module in the manner Chirag module was created in 2020 assembly polls,” Singh said, referring to allegations that Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) chief Chirag Paswan dented the JD(U)’s seat share in 2020 by openly criticising Nitish as part of a conspiracy with the BJP, a charge denied by the latter.
Lalan Singh, the Lok Sabha MP from Munger, made no comment with respect to the future of the BJP-JD(U) alliance, but said, “So far, it is good. We voted for NDA’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates.”
Lalan Singh also said the JD(U) will not be a part of the Union Council of Ministers, stressing that this was a decision taken by Nitish Kumar in 2019 and one that party leaders will adhere to. He hinted that R.C.P. Singh, who resigned from the Union Council of Ministers in July, had been made steel minister by the BJP.
But a senior BJP leader who spoke to ThePrint on condition of anonymity denied Lalan Singh’s allegations. “It is a lie. Amit Shah had talked to Nitish Kumar and the Bihar CM gave his approval,” the BJP leader said.
The BJP and JD(U) alliance seems to be heading for a split, the BJP leader added.
Headed for ‘splitsville’?
Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has displayed a pronounced sense of aloofness vis-à-vis the BJP with his actions over the past few days.
On Sunday, he skipped a NITI Aayog meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but was seen attending functions in Patna. No explanation has been offered by the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) in this regard yet.
Earlier, the chief minister made headlines with his decision to give a miss to the dinner hosted by PM Modi for outgoing President Ram Nath Kovind and outgoing Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu. The CMO, at the time, said Nitish Kumar was suffering from Covid-19.
The actions of the RJD have added to speculation that efforts may be underway to revive the mahagathbandhan.
Former JD(U) spokesperson Dr Ajay Alok pointed out that, over the past 10 days, the RJD seems to be going soft on the JD(U) over a number of issues, including the hooch tragedy that claimed a dozen lives in Saran district last week and the arrest of a deputy superintendent of police-rank officer in the alleged Bihar Public Service Commission question paper leak case.
“We have been asked not to speak against Nitish,” an RJD MLA told the Print on condition of anonymity.
What Nitish Kumar stands to gain
Whether he remains part of the BJP-led NDA or returns to the mahagathbandhan fold, Nitish Kumar is likely to continue being the chief minister either way. This gives way to the question — what does he stand to gain from switching sides?
“The step will be suicidal for Nitish. He will be losing credibility and curbing his own party’s power if he allies with the RJD. The Bihar BJP does not have a leader who can challenge Nitish. But the RJD has Tejashwi, who almost made it in the 2020 assembly polls,” said political analyst N.K. Choudhary.
“If Nitish is having problems with the BJP, it will increase manifold with the RJD. Nitish’s tenure as Bihar CM will end in 2025, either way,” he added.
The only thing Nitish stands to gain is his desire to “shift to Delhi and become a player in national politics and become politically relevant beyond 2025”, said Choudhary, a former head of the department of economics at Patna University.
That can be done only if he goes to the UPA [Congress-led United Progressive Alliance],” he added.
Former JD(U) leader R.C.P. Singh, who is very much in the eye of the storm, said Nitish Kumar is quite capable of switching sides.
“But frequent changing of sides has badly mauled his credibility. It gives the impression that he is in politics not for Bihar, but for himself. This time, the people and his workers will not forgive him,” Singh told ThePrint.
He added that Nitish Kumar had done wonders for Bihar between 2005 and 2010 but then some individuals told him “that he was prime minister material”. “Since then everything has gone down,” he said.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)