Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s recent statements and moves have stirred the political pot in Bihar and set off speculation about his continuance in the ruling mahagathbandhan in the state.
Kumar, considered to be a wily politician who has often switched sides to remain in the Chief Minister’s chair, has indicated of late that he is not happy in the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)-led coalition.
The latest salvo against the RJD was fired by him Wednesday (January 24) while addressing a rally in state capital Patna to mark the 100th birth anniversary of socialist icon and two-time Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur who has just been conferred the Bharat Ratna.
Addressing the massive rally, Kumar said that Thakur did not promote any family members “unlike some others who are only promoting their family members and making them leaders”.
There’s little doubt that Kumar’s target was RJD chief Lalu Yadav who has been promoting his sons--Tejaswi and Tej Pratap--in politics.
Kumar’s reluctance to step down:
Kumar, it is well known, has been facing a lot of pressure from the RJD leadership to step down in favour of his deputy, Tejaswi Yadav. It is believed that Lalu Yadav had made this--Nitish Kumar stepping down in favour of Tejaswi--a precondition for Kumar’s return to the mahagathbandhan in August 2022.
But Kumar is unwilling to step down before the Lok Sabha elections, as is being demanded of him. He wants to wait till the results of the elections are out; only if he spies a possibility of advancing to the national political stage will he make way for his deputy (Tejaswi).
Nitish Kumar’s barbs against dynastic politics has riled the RJD. A senior RJD leader who is close to Lalu Yadav told Swarajya that the RJD chief had made his displeasure known to his senior colleagues.
What’s more, Kumar profusely thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for conferring the Bharat Ratna on Karpoori Thakur. “We have been demanding this recognition (Bharat Ratna) for him since 2007 and had requested every government at the Centre, including the Congress. But no one had done it. I am thankful and grateful to Prime Minister Modi for accepting our demand. I congratulate him,” Kumar said at the rally.
Reshuffling portfolios of RJD ministers
Last week, Kumar reshuffled his cabinet to reallocate portfolios of three RJD ministers. He shunted Chandrashekhar, a senior RJD leader who is close to Lalu Yadav, from the education department to the insignificant sugarcane department.
Chandrashekhar had courted controversy with his remarks on the Ramcharitmanas and crossing swords with a senior bureaucrat who is close to the chief minister.
That rejig was Kumar’s way of telling the RJD supremo that he (Kumar) was the boss in the government. RJD sources told Swarajya that while Kumar had given an inkling to Lalu Yadav last month that he would rejig the portfolios of some RJD ministers, he did not share any details with Yadav.
Deputy CM Tejaswi Yadav and his father (Lalu Yadav) met Kumar just a day before the reshuffle (Friday, January 19), but the matter was not discussed at that meeting.
It is significant that Lalu Yadav and his son went to meet Kumar January 19, and not the other way around. At that meeting, which lasted for nearly 45 minutes, only matters related to the INDI Alliance were reportedly discussed.
The three had met on Makar Sankranti (January 15) when Nitish Kumar went to Rabri Devi’s residence (where Lalu Yadav stays) for the traditional dahi-chura feast. But Kumar was there for only ten minutes and ate only a spoonful.
Ties between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav have become frosty over a number of issues, the primary being Yadav’s reluctance to push Kumar’s candidature as the head of the INDI Alliance.
Kumar expected Lalu to propose his name for the post of alliance chairperson or convenor. Lalu had reportedly even assured Kumar of doing that, but reneged on his promise.
Kumar has been sending signals that he is contemplating a major political move. In late December, he assumed the presidency of his party after removing Lalan Singh who had become too close to Lalu Yadav for Kumar’s comfort.
Last week, he announced a new team of JD(U) office-bearers; some faces who were perceived to be close to the RJD and the Congress were dropped and a number of Nitish loyalists were given senior positions.
Tension over seat-sharing
Differences have cropped up between Nitish and Lalu over seat-sharing. Nitish Kumar wants to contest 17 Lok Sabha seats--the same number that the JD(U) contested in 2019--and wants the RJD to share the remaining 23 seats with its Congress and Left allies.
But Lalu Yadav wants the JD(U) chief to scale down this demand to about 14 seats, which Kumar is unwilling to do.
Yadav wants his party to contest from a lion’s share of seats because it is the senior partner in the mahagathbandhan. He also wants to allocate a respectable number of seats to the Congress and the Left who have been his steadfast allies in the state. Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, has been an unreliable ally and has left the mahagathbandhan in the past to join hands with the BJP.
While Nitish has been pushing for finalising the seat-sharing deal, Lalu has made it clear that he is in no hurry to do so. He has even said so publicly.
But JD(U) leaders close to Kumar have announced that their party will not wait indefinitely for other allies to come on board and finalise the (seat-sharing) deal.
At the same time, RJD leaders close to Lalu have been speaking out against Nitish Kumar. Last week, Bhai Birendra, a key aide of the RJD supremo, told reporters “Nitish became CM because of Lalu Yadav”. Such statements have strained Lalu-Nitish ties.
Amit Shah’s statement
Given all this, Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s statement last week indicating that the BJP would not be averse to joining hands once again with Nitish Kumar has added to the speculation over Kumar’s next move.
Asked if Kumar would be welcomed back into the NDA fold, Shah said that if such a proposal comes, it would be considered. That marks a complete change of stance from his (Shah’s) earlier assertion that the doors of the NDA were closed to Kumar forever.
Though Lalu Yadav as well as Tejaswi have reiterated that “all is well” in the mahagathbandhan, it is apparent that ties between the two allies are strained.
Significantly, Nitish Kumar, who has always played with his cards close to his chest, has been evading questions from the media about the health of the ruling alliance.
All these developments, and Kumar’s latest criticism of dynastic politics which was a clear swipe at the Yadavs, has led to frenetic speculation about an impending churn in Bihar’s politics.
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