Nitish Kumar's decision to dump the NDA is fraught with risk

Nearly 19 years back, when Nitish Kumar moved away from the erstwhile Janata Dal and formed his own outfit - the Samata Party - in 1994, he got the taste of biggest defeat in his political career in the following year. The Samata Party, though headed by veteran Socialist George Fernandes, was considered Nitish’s pocket-borough but it could bag only seven seats out of 324 constituencies in the undivided Bihar during the 1995 Assembly elections.

It was this crushing defeat in his home state which made Nitish realise the futility of going it alone in elections. Prior to May 1996 Lok Sabha elections, he, through Fernandes, joined hands with the BJP which later paid handsome dividends. Having worked in tandem with the saffron party for the last 17 years, he enjoyed the fruits of power after being appointed as a Union minister in Vajpayee’s regime from 1998 to 2004 where he served as railways, agriculture and roads & surface transport minister.

The BJP too benefitted with this alliance. It came to power for the first time in Bihar in November 2005. In 2010, both parties reaped a big harvest as the BJP won 91 of 102 seats it contested and the JD (U) too created history by winning 115 out of 141 seats. The JD(U) got 22.61 per cent of votes and BJP 16.46 per cent. Together, they bagged 39.07 per cent votes as against RJD’s 18.84 per cent and Congress’ 8.38  per cent. Even though the RJD polled more votes than the BJP (percentage wise), it got merely 22 seats, while the Congress and the LJP bagged four and three seats respectively. Even as the JD(U) and the BJP combined to gain almost four-fifth seats, the opposition fell apart.
Understanding this poll arithmetic was all the more important because an astute politician like Nitish Kumar knows too well that “united we stand and divided we fall.” Still he has taken a calculated political risk of splitting with the BJP, which could make or mar his prospect in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections as well as the Assembly elections which will follow the next year.

Seeds of separation

The seeds of separation between the JD(U) and the BJP were sown during the presidential election last year when Nitish’s JD (U) voted in favour of Congress candidate Pranab Mukherjee instead of BJP’s borrowed player PA Sangma. Earlier, Nitish had made known his antipathy for his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi when he had cancelled a dinner for the BJP leaders in 2010 after Modi took out full-page advertisements in vernacular dailies showing him holding hands with Nitish Kumar. Nitish refunded the relief amount sent by Gujarat for Kosi flood victims. He even disallowed Modi to campaign in Bihar and later proved to the BJP that it was actually he (Nitish) who mattered in Bihar, and no one else.

Though sulking, and, at times, realising that Nitish had become too big for his boots, the BJP still kept tolerating his tantrums. But Modi’s growing stature following his hattrick of victories in Gujarat and clear hints from the BJP that he will be given a bigger role in national politics, made Nitish realise that he had to act quick to retain his turf.
t was the recent Maharajganj Lok Sabha bypoll result which was the flashpoint. Nitish’s Man Friday PK Sahi lost to RJD’s turncoat Prabhunath Singh by over 1.37 lakh votes. This was the first defeat Nitish suffered after taking over as Bihar CM in November 2005. Adding insult to injuries were the Gujarat results, where Narendra Modi swept the bypolls. snatching two Lok Sabha and four Assembly seats from the Congress.

By June 5, when the bypoll results were out, Nitish was clear in his mind that it was difficult to stop Modi  any more. And the entry of nationally-elevated Modi in Nitish’s home ground would have eroded the JD(U) strongman’s assiduously cultivated minority vote bank. After all, despite ruling with the BJP in Bihar, he has given the Muslims a riot-free state, re-opened Bhagalpur riot cases, punished the guilty, and his government had given life-long pensions of Rs 2,500 per month to each of the kin of those killed or untraced in the riots.

Unlike Lalu Prasad, who has a numerically strong fellow castemen Yadavs to fall back upon, Nitish does not have a caste base of his own. His  Kurmi community accounts for barely 2 per cent. So he is cultivating the three Ms: Minorities, Most Backward Classes (MBCs) and Mahadalits (the poorest among dalits). Together they constitute nearly 50 per cent of votes. That leaves BJP with upper caste voters (Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars and Kayasthas) who constitute nearly 22 per cent of the electorate and the Vaishyas among the rest of OBCs. But no party can claim that they have their followers in their pockets.

But everyone realises that come 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the poll arithmetic will depend on fresh electoral chemistry. And at this point of time it is anybody’s guess. As one senior BJP leader said, “Nitish will soon realise the futility of going it alone in elections. He may have qualified in electrical engineering (Nitish is an electrical engineer from Bihar College of Engineering, now called NIT, Patna), but social engineering is totally different. He will have to pay a price for betraying us.”

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