Nitish-BJP ties sour: Time for another somersault?

Nitish-BJP ties sour: Time for another somersault?

Analysts believe the BJP’s thumping Lok Sabha majority may soon end JD(U)’s political dominance and foil Kumar’s bid to swing the CM’s post in the 2020 Assembly election

 JD(U) chief and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar will come under pressure to guard his turf from the expanding BJP. PTI file photo

Paradoxically, rather than being celebratory, National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) resounding electoral victory in Bihar has spurred only distrust and bad vibes between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its alliance partner Janata Dal (United); between chief minister and JD(U) boss Nitish Kumar and the Modi-Shah duopoly. Their ties turned prickly soon after election results were out on May 23, giving rise to speculation that Kumar is readying for yet another stunning political somersault; only the timing is hazy.

The NDA swept Bihar winning 39 out of the 40 Lok Sabha seats while the Congress won a solitary seat and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) zilch. As of now, both Kumar and Amit Shah (BJP president and union home minister) are calibrating their next moves. They need each other at least for the time being; a proactive Shah on Tuesday doused the fire by directing Saffron storm troopers in Patna to pipe down and not provoke Kumar.

Two contrasting events – BJP’s stunning performance and RJD wipe out – have dramatically changed the political equations in Bihar. The results should have pleased Kumar for RJD has been his bitter political foe. Ironically, it is the other way round.

Analysts believe that BJP’s thumping Lok Sabha majority and its increasing footprint in Bihar may soon end JD(U)’s political dominance and foil Kumar’s bid to swing the CM’s post in his favour post-2020 assembly election. At the same time, a suitably humbled RJD has provided him with an opportunity to patch up with his bête noire Lalu Yadav, and revive the Mahagathbandhan comprising JD(U)- RJD-Congress and Hindustani Awam Morcha Secular (HAMS) and continue at the helm beyond 2020.

Enjoying a brute majority on its own, the Saffron party is not at the mercy of its allies and that is why PM Narendra Modi offered just a lone cabinet berth to JD(U) with a take-it-or-leave-it gusto. A stung JD(U) stayed out of the Modi government. Promptly, Kumar surprised the political class by attending the Iftar party hosted by HAMS chief Jitin Ram Manjhi sending out politically loaded messages to BJP and the secular camp. Kumar apprehends that next year the Sangh will install its own nominee as the CM. The RSS is unlikely to forgive him for his public call earlier seeking an “RSS-mukt” (free) India.

Even before the elections, ties between the two had begun to sour. At a joint election rally, Kumar refused to chant ‘Vande Mataram’ when Modi nudged NDA leaders on the podium to chorus the slogan. Kumar was also peeved with the BJP brass for dragooning him to trash his party manifesto because it had references to controversial issues like uniform civil code, Article 370 and citizenship amendment bill etc. Grapevine is that Modi government may replace Jammu and Kashmir governor Satya Pal Malik, a former Janata Dal leader and Nitish loyalist, with Puducherry governor Kiran Bedi.

The RSS has managed to polarise and make deep inroads in Bihar. Before Nitish returned to the NDA in 2017, local BJP leaders had said that plans were afoot to increase party’s core vote share by 10 per cent in the next three years to unseat the Nitish government. Options before the JD(U) are limited. Nitish can either sail with the Saffron party till 2020 or 2024, swallowing his pride or go back to the Grand Alliance (GA).

The main reason for Nitish to dump the GA was because Lalu foisted his son Tejashwi Yadav as deputy CM and Nitish was uncomfortable with the looming presence of his young deputy who was being groomed to succeed him in 2020. But the RJD’s electoral nemesis suddenly changed Bihar’s optics making the Lalu clan politically vulnerable before a predatory BJP.

Fearing his own marginalization under Modi-Shah suzerainty, Kumar himself was keen to revive the GA and had deputed his confidant and election strategist Prashant Kishor to negotiate with Lalu Yadav a few months back, but the latter’s wife Rabri Devi and Tejashwi furiously opposed any truck with “betrayer” Kumar.

Nonetheless, unprecedented electoral rout, an ageing and ailing Lalu in and out of jail and hospital in Ranchi, sibling rivalry in the family, Tejashwi coming a cropper as a debutant politician have since humbled the Yadav clan. Political observers say the RJD may now agree to play second fiddle to Kumar at least as a tactical move to live to fight for another day. The RJD has already started sending feelers to Kumar. On Monday, none other than Rabri Devi herself said she has no objection if JDU joins the alliance. “If Nitish Kumar joins the Grand Alliance again, we have no objection to it she told media persons.

Kumar is expected to return the compliment but not now, he will choose his own timing. Over the years he has mastered the art of political somersault with consummate skill. In 2013 he quit the NDA protesting projection of Modi as PM candidate and subsequently joined the GA. Two years later he dumped GA and returned to NDA praising Modi without batting an eye and now, two years later, he is itching for another U-turn. Nitish watchers in Patna say: “He strikes at the appropriate time; he takes one to three years to prepare the ground for his next move conjuring up convincing justifications.

(Kay Benedict is a New-Delhi based independent journalist)

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