The JD(U) is claiming that Nitish Kumar is the face of NDA in Bihar and it has made a demand, among others, for the most seats to contest in the election.
There is a possibility that Nitish might leave the NDA and join hands with others.
But how much would that affect the BJP in 2019? It appears, not much.
Nitish Kumar has reached out to Lalu Yadav to do a ghar wapsi to the Mahagathbandhan (MGB), a report in the Print has revealed. While Lalu and the Congress party are not averse to this idea, Lalu's son Tejashwi Yadav is believed not to be in favour of it. As this writer had written earlier, Indian politics’ biggest ‘palturam’ may be preparing for another somersault.
A problem of plenty for BJP in Bihar
Bolstered by the losses of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in recent by-polls, Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), like the other National Democratic Alliance (NDA) ally, Shiv Sena, has started to flex its muscles. The JD(U) is claiming that Nitish is the face of NDA in Bihar. The party also claims that it should get the highest number of seats to contest in 2019 as it has the higher number of members of legislative assembly. The BJP-led NDA won 31 of the 40 seats in Bihar in 2014. The party itself won 22 seats while Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) bagged six and three seats respectively. However, in the 2015 state assembly election, JD(U) together with RJD and Congress bagged 71 seats. The BJP could manage just 53 and allies, five.
The induction of JD(U) into NDA with two members of Parliament last year has complicated matters for seat distribution. In 2014, the BJP contested 30, LJP seven, and RLSP three in 2014. The JD(U) has upped the ante and demanded 22-24 seats while leaving 16-18 seats for the BJP and NDA.
With this demand, Nitish is pushing his luck hard since Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are unlikely to agree to it. It could, at best, either be 17 for the BJP, 17 for the JD(U), six for the LJP with the RLSP out or 16-16-6-2 with Kushwaha in the alliance, in my view.
In 2014, BJP had crafted a deft social coalition
The BJP got the overwhelming support of upper castes, Dalits, Kushwahas, and most backward classes (MBC), accounting for 55 per cent of Bihar’s population. Lalu managed to hold on to his Muslim-Yadav vote bank, accounting for 31 per cent of the population. Nitish managed to get small chunks of Koeri/Kurmi/Yadav/MBC and Dalit/Mahadalit votes. There was no caste group which voted overwhelmingly for Nitish and JD(U), not even Kurmis, to which caste Nitish belongs. The BJP bagged 39 per cent vote share, JD(U) 17 per cent, and RJD 30 per cent.
Nitish is caught between the devil and the deep sea
One of the champions of caste-based politics, having created two new caste categories – "Most Backward Classes" and "Mahadalits" – for electoral gains, Nitish is now struggling. Manjhi has taken away a section of Mahadalits and Nitish has lost Muslim support, visible in Araria and other by-poll results. Historically, 20-25 per cent of Muslims have backed Nitish in Bihar. On the other hand, Lalu’s anchor voting segment is dedicated and intact – Muslims/Yadavs and a section of Dalits/Other Backward Classes (poor/lower class).
Lalu’s voters have no issues with him going to jail. In fact, it appears to have increased his stature among them. They consider him a martyr. Nitish’s flip-flops haven’t helped his case either, with people coming to know of his ideological bankruptcy to remain in power. Nitish is also exploring the possibility of joining forces with Paswan, but has not been able to make much headway.
Why Nitish exit may not harm BJP in Bihar
If JD(U) contests alone, the BJP will benefit in a triangular contest, like in 2014. Anti-BJP votes will be split between JD(U) and MGB. A section of Muslims and Dalits along with Kurmis may support Nitish in places where they feel the JD(U) candidate is strong. The fact that Nitish breaks away from BJP will help him keep his Muslim support intact to a certain extent.
If Nitish contests with the BJP, JD(U) as well as the BJP will face a rebellion as tickets will need to be denied to sitting members of Parliament. Many candidates who contested or won in 2014 may switch to MGB or smaller parties, hampering the BJP’s chances.
Of the 17 per cent vote share received by the JD(U) in 2014, a little more than one-sixth is accounted for by Muslims. This vote is not expected to be transferred to NDA and reduces JD(U)’s effective strength to 14 per cent. A section of Mahadalits could go to MGB along with Manjhi, further reducing Nitish’s influence.
Nitish's "magic" is seen as fading if recent by-poll results are any indication. It is normal for a chief minister who has been 10+ years in power to face anti-incumbency. While the law and order situation has improved in the state, there has been no substantial improvement on the industry and job fronts.
Nitish has cut down to size anybody who has challenged him – George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav, to name just a couple. The JD(U) doesn’t have a vote bank of its own. The caste he hails from, Kurmi, makes up only 4 per cent of Bihar’s population. Over the years, after Nitish retires, the BJP could absorb some of that vote share.
...Unless Lalu spoils BJP’s party
That the JD(U) has not been given any ministries in the Union cabinet and Nitish's demand for a special status for Bihar remains unmet have irked Nitish and he may use it as a reason to get out of NDA again and try to make Lalu, his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend-turned-foe turn friend again. The chances of Lalu-Congress taking back Nitish are 50:50. While Lalu may bargain for the chief minister's chair for his son, the Congress may not be averse to the idea as it strengthens MGB in the state and gives a fillip to opposition unity.
A standalone Nitish, to sum up, will not harm the BJP’s prospects in the 2019 election. He won’t quit on the NDA unless he makes an arrangement to stay in power as chief minister. If MGB embraces him, then the BJP will have to face two MGBs in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where it won one-third of its total seats in 2014.