Nitish, caught between the devil and the deep sea

Nitish, caught between the devil and the deep sea

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President Amit Shah exchange greetings at the state guest house, in Patna on Thursday. (PTI Photo)

On a hot summer day in 2010, Nitish Kumar, then riding high on his popularity wave, had the audacity of cancelling a dinner for Narendra Modi and other BJP stalwarts as he was miffed with his then Gujarat counterpart over an advertisement the latter had issued in local newspapers.

Eight years down the line, on July 12, Nitish hosted BJP president Amit Shah twice in a day — once over breakfast, and then for dinner. It’s not that the JD(U) strongman has suddenly developed fondness for the BJP chief, with whom he has never enjoyed a cordial relationship. But he preferred to ‘chew the fat’ with the BJP chief as the Modi-Shah duo have shown, of late, that they are capable of making him eat humble pie otherwise.

Pushed to the corner by a dominant BJP, Nitish has been rendered rudderless and directionless. His credo of good governance, which fetched him rich dividends in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and 2010 assembly elections, has gone for a toss. His oft-repeated assertion, “I will not compromise with three Cs- crime, corruption and communalism” has been reduced to a hackneyed slogan. Crime against women is at an all-time high in Bihar. Union ministers (from BJP) have been fanning communal tensions ever since he joined hands with the saffron camp in July last year. And about corruption, the less said the better.

The BJP leaders cannot hide their glee over such helplessness of Nitish, who seems to be on the horns of a dilemma whether to continue his alliance with the BJP which is no longer ready to play second fiddle to him, or to take another U-turn and resurrect the Grand Alliance.

It’s now an open secret that the JD(U) had recently roped in poll management guru Prashant Kishore to explore the possibility of Nitish’s return to the Grand Alliance. Sources say the talks had commenced in right earnest, till Lalu’s youngest son and former deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav put his foot down, and virtually slammed the door on Nitish. “You voluntarily opt for retirement from politics, only then will we join hands with JD(U),” was Tejashwi terse reply. Tejashwi’s elder brother Tej Pratap went a step further and put up a “No entry for Nitish” notice on the entrance gate of Rabri Devi’s residence.

Not amused over such theatrics and anguished over the unsavoury attacks by the RJD, Nitish has preferred to stay put. At least, the BJP has never humiliated him in public. Modi and Shah have often talked highly of Nitish and reiterated that he is a “valuable ally”.

“It’s incorrect to say that BJP has not humiliated Nitish,” says former JD(U) Rajya Sabha member Shivanand Tiwary, who is now national vice-president of the RJD. “Nitish’s men were not included in the Modi cabinet when the ministry was expanded last year.

Later, when Modi visited Bihar to take stock of the flood situation, he snubbed Nitish by reportedly turning down a request for lunch/dinner meeting. In October last year, when Nitish pleaded with Modi with folded hands to make Patna University a central varsity, Modi snubbed Nitish again. Recently, when Nitish asked the Centre to release Rs 7636 crore in flood relief fund, he was given a meagre Rs 1,200 crore,” Tiwary said.

“But,” says the veteran socialist, “Nitish has himself to blame for his precarious situation. The man who once nursed prime ministerial ambition has shot himself in the foot. Even today, no one knows for sure why he dumped the Grand Alliance in July 2017? When he joined hands with Lalu in 2015 to hand Modi a decisive and crushing defeat in assembly elections, was he not aware of the charges against Lalu in the fodder scam? The fact is, Nitish has proved himself to be a rank opportunist. And the BJP knows his trait very well.”

No way out

Political commentator Ajay Kumar agrees. “Nitish ke liye aage kuan hai, peeche khai” (roughly, “Nitish is caught between the devil and the deep sea”). The Congress was more than willing to welcome him back into the Grand Alliance, but with the RJD not ready to forgive Nitish, the possibility of a reconciliation has ended. Now that the BJP is aware of his limited options, it will treat Nitish like any other ally, notwithstanding Shah’s praise for him.”

Nitish has been demanding a fair share of Lok Sabha seats ahead of 2019 polls. One proposal doing the rounds is that the BJP and the JD(U) contest 17 seats each while leaving the remaining six seats in the state for the two other allies — Ram Vilas Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha’s outfits. Shah tactfully avoided any seat-sharing pact so early, thereby increasing the anxiety of the JD(U) chief.

Nitish’s worry stems from the fact that if the BJP does not concede to his demand for more seats during LS poll, he could be in for more trouble if Modi comes back to power in 2019. In that case, the Modi-Shah duo would seek to shrink him further even within Bihar, by giving him fewer seats to contest in the assembly elections in 2020.

“It’s against this backdrop that Nitish is in a tearing hurry. If the seat-sharing pact is not as per his wish, he may, true to his characteristic, make another U-turn,” Tiwary told Deccan Herald, dwelling at length on how Nitish, who has no vote base of his own, has been ruling Bihar since 2005.

“He contested elections on his own twice. In 1995, he won seven seats out of 324 constituencies in undivided Bihar. In the 2014 LS poll, he won merely two seats out of 40. These numbers provide the clearest evidence of how badly Nitish needs crutches to cling to power,” Tiwary, Nitish’s friend-turned-foe, said.

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