There is a fanciful story being circulated by ‘masterstroke’ theorists, that Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s latest flip was planned in connivance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) some years before.
The truth is far more prosaic: he ditched the Yadavs’ Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Congress and the Left, because Kumar’s own party, the Janata Dal-United or JD(U) was in danger of being carved up by the BJP and the RJD.
This is how he has always operated, switching from group to group. It is a remarkable strategy because, if we set aside morals and ideology, this approach has allowed him to stay on as Chief Minister for 18 long years (including the brief period in 2014-15 when he temporarily handed over the reins to Jitan Ram Manjhi).
The difference is that Kumar used to do so till 2005 to grow, till 2022 to prevent his allies from growing, and since then, to stave off political oblivion. But the problem is that through all his transmutations, he failed to develop a second leadership rung.
Perhaps he didn’t need to, since it is the admirable, sustained loyalty to him personally, of that vital 15-18 per cent of the electorate (the Kurmi-Koeri community), which gave him the heft to do as he has.
No party can win an election or form a government in Bihar without the support of Kumar. That truth holds good for the forthcoming general elections as well: the BJP, the JD(U), and their allies will most probably sweep the state’s 40 Lok Sabha seats only because Kumar is on board.
But structural issues are showing, and Kumar is not getting any younger. This game cannot last. The RJD have successfully corralled most of the minority vote into their stable, and continue to retain widespread support from the Yadav community.
Lalu Prasad Yadav’s ‘M-Y’ formula, the Muslim-Yadav axis he crafted, is still a formidable force in Bihar politics. If the RJD had managed to successfully engineer even half a split in the JD(U), they, along with the Congress and the Left, would have become the single largest political grouping in the state.
Similarly, at the other end of the political spectrum, the BJP has quietly reorganised its state leadership.
Note how smoothly Sushi Modi has made way for V K Sinha and Samrat Choudhary, both of whom were sworn in as deputy chief ministers on 28 January. Choudhary, who is a Koeri, has become quite popular across the state in the past year, since he was appointed as president of the BJP in Bihar. He is aggressive, and, until this weekend’s ‘palti’, had persistently attacked Kumar without mercy.
It is quite possible that Kumar removed Lalan Singh from the JD(U)’s presidentship in late December 2023 because he needed to have organisational control over his party in the run up to the general elections, to try and prevent an exodus to the BJP.
This presents a cleft-stick situation to Kumar, but one in which the cleft’s two prongs are being pulled inexorably apart by forces beyond his control.
On the one hand, when he allies with the RJD, he has to suffer accusations of corruption, and run the grave risk of eroding his vote base on account of the rising stigma against identity politics. These issues were aggravated after he joined the Congress-led dotted coalition (which is now pretty much dead in the water). The contradictions grew unmanageable.
And in this digital age, every time a Dravidian politician made an anti-Hindu remark, it is the Hindi press which amplified it ten-fold, and fed the flow across social media, making allies in other parts of the country like Kumar answerable.
Who needs that headache, especially in election season? Or, to formulate Kumar’s predicament more precisely, how on earth is he expected to defend a Stalin and calm his incensed flock at the same time? The simple answer is, he can’t.
We got a sense of that in December, when Nitish spoke rather harshly to T R Baalu at a coalition meeting; and again, recently, when JD(U) MLA Gopal Madal was interrupted by a party senior during a rally speech, and told to tone down his diatribe against the prana-pratishtha ceremony at Ayodhya.
On the other hand, when he allies with the BJP, and does better electorally than he would when allied with the RJD, it only accelerates the BJP’s growth in Bihar.
Today, the BJP commands around 30 per cent of the vote in the state. As a recent piece on Kumar’s many flips noted, this is inevitable since ‘the road from Marx to Mandal ends at Mandir’.
Thus far, Nitish Kumar has done what he has because he could get away with it. But not anymore; he’s probably done his last ‘palti’. At 72, with no succession plan, and facing severe anti-incumbency even from his own, this is a respectable twilight to walk towards.
After all, he managed more breakups and reconciliations than Liz Taylor and Richard Burton ever did, and single-handedly sank the opposition’s chances in the 2024 general elections. There is style in saving the best for last!
Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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