Nitish, caught between a strong Modi and weak Lalu

Nitish fears BJP may play big brother during state polls next year and demand an equal number of seats — and even the chief minister’s chair — if it manages to win more seats than the JD(U)

The BJP-led NDA swept Bihar, winning 39 out of 40 seats in the Lok Sabha elections. Meanwhile, Lalu Yadav’s RJD received a drubbing, unable to even open its account.

The celebrations, though, were short-lived as Nitish Kumar, unhappy with the number of berths allotted, opted out of the Modi 2.0 ministry. He didn’t like a token representation in the Cabinet. After all, if Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP with six MPs got one cabinet rank, JD(U) surely deserved at-least three berths with its 16 MPs!

JD(U)’s logic is not unjustified. It feels that NDA’s stupendous performance is due to a combination of the Modi wave as well as Nitish’s popularity. The BJP feels that allies like JD(U) benefitted from the Presidential-style elections. BJP’s logic, too, is not unjustified.

But Nitish has a big ego. So he retorted by expanding the state cabinet and inducting eight new ministers from JD(U), leaving out the BJP.

A recent meeting of the JD (U) national executive has also held that the alliance with BJP is limited to Bihar and the party will contest Assembly elections in Delhi, Jharkhand, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir alone. Needless to say, JD (U) will not be able to make much impact in any of these states, apart from fracturing the votes.

But it has definitely sent a signal that all is not well within the Bihar NDA. His prodigy and national vice-president, Prashant Kishor, has taken up the assignment of helping Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, where the BJP — emboldened by its Lok Sabha performance — has upped the ante for state elections that are due in 2021.

Nitish is one of the biggest paltu-rams (U-turn specialists) of Indian politics. His opponents allege he is power hungry and will do anything to remain in  power. Narendra Modi and Nitish also do not share a harmonious relationship. Nitish left NDA in June 2013 after Modi was made the BJP Campaign Committee Chief and when it was clear that he would be the PM face.

After being routed in Lok Sabha 2014, where JD(U) could manage only two seats, Nitish made friends with his rival Lalu Yadav. The Mahagathbandhan comprising JD(U), RJD and the Congress stopped the BJP juggernaut in Bihar, with Nitish retaining the CM chair, dealing a hard blow to Modi.

In 2017, when Lalu and family were embroiled in fresh corruption cases, Nitish returned to the NDA, satisfied that he had proved a point to the Modi-Shah duo that he could win without their support. In 2019, he bargained hard with the BJP for seats, getting an equal number (17) to contest and won all, barring one.

Recent events have fuelled rumours that Nitish will junk the NDA and move back to friend-turned-foe Lalu again. He cannot stay in an alliance where he is not the bigger partner. Nitish fears BJP may play big brother during state polls next year and demand an equal number of seats — and even the chief minister’s chair — if it manages to win more seats than the JD(U). The Bihar chief minister fears that the BJP may do a Shiv Sena on JD(U). So, he is caught between a stronger Modi and weakened Lalu.

Lalu’s RJD recorded its worst performance ever in Lok Sabha polls. His daughter Misa again lost to Ram Kirpal Yadav. His two sons Tejaswi and Tej Pratap have fallen out, which is harming the party’s prospects. Lalu is languishing in jail, his health is failing and prospects of an early release are pretty dim. He may not be averse to accepting Nitish back to revive his party’s sagging fortunes, despite the backstabbing in 2017.

Nitish has a vote bank which is transferable to any alliance. In the 2014 Lok Sabha, JD(U) secured 16% votes. In 2015, this vote was transferred to the Mahagathbandhan, which improved its vote share from 27% to 43%. In 2019, yet again, it was transferred to NDA, which pulled up its vote share from 36% to 53%. Nitish enjoys good clout among Kurmi, Koeris, MBCs, Mahadalits and even Muslims. His schemes and policies have built a solid woman vote bank, not unlike Modi.

Nitish could wait for the five state election results, including Delhi early next year, before taking a final call.

Image credit: PTI

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