When Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar walked over to the residence of Rabri Devi to attend an iftar party Friday (22 April) evening, he set off intense speculation about a likely change in political equations in the state.
It took barely two minutes for Kumar to cover the approximately 200 metres from his official residence at 1, Anne Mark to Rabri Devi’s residence at 10, Circular Road. But the short walk, say some political observers, spanned a major divide in Bihar’s politics and could be a sign of things to come.
Kumar, though, was not the only one from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) camp who attended the iftar party. Senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader and state Industries Minister Syed Shahnawaz Hussain and Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) chief Chirag Paswan were also there.
Rabri Devi’s younger son and leader of opposition Tejashwi Yadav by issuing a statement that the Chief Minister was among politicians of all hues who attended the iftar party and no politics should be read into it. But his mercurial elder brother Tej Pratap fanned a buzz by that he had a “secret” discussion with Kumar and that Bihar will witness a change in government.
A section of Janata Dal [United] (JDU) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leaders contended that Kumar’s visit to Rabri Devi’s residence was significant because it came on the heels of Lalu Yadav in the fifth and last case he has been convicted in. The grant of bail had paved the way for Lalu Yadav’s active participation in politics.
Kumar’s visit to his political archrival’s residence also came before Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s day-long visit to Bihar Saturday (23 April). A few RJD leaders said Kumar’s visit to Rabri Devi’s residence on the eve of Shah’s visit to Bihar was Kumar’s way of letting the BJP know that he is keeping his options open.
There have been tensions within the NDA in Bihar, with a few BJP leaders voicing criticism of Kumar and hinting that he should step down from the Chief Minister’s post. A section of the state BJP leadership feels that since the JD(U) is a junior partner in the alliance, the Chief Minister’s post rightfully belongs to the BJP. A few BJP leaders have openly stated that Kumar should go into semi-retirement in Rajya Sabha.
In the 2020 assembly polls, the BJP emerged as the strongest constituent of the NDA with 74 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) while the JD(U) bagged only 43 seats. The RJD had emerged as the single-largest party with 75 MLAs, but that honour has now gone to the BJP, whose strength in the 243-member assembly has gone up to 77, with the defection of three legislators of the (VIP) to the saffron party.
JD(U) leaders told Swarajya that after emerging as the largest party in the ruling alliance, the BJP has been asserting itself in many ways. And a section of BJP leaders has been subjecting ally JD(U) to a regular dose of pinpricks.
Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and BJP president J P Nadda had asserted before the assembly elections in Bihar that Nitish Kumar is the face of the NDA in the state, that the alliance would contest the polls under Kumar’s leadership, and that Kumar would become the Chief Minister of the state irrespective of the number of seats the JD(U) won, many in the BJP have been unhappy with Kumar being installed as the Chief Minister.
The shifting of senior BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi out of Bihar by the party central leadership immediately after the assembly polls provided the first inkling that it will not be smooth sailing for Nitish Kumar.
Modi, who was the deputy chief minister and finance minister in successive governments under Kumar, has an excellent rapport with Kumar. Modi had often kept Kumar’s critics within his own party at bay and silenced all opposition to Kumar.
It was his proximity to Kumar that cost Sushil Modi his post of deputy chief minister, say BJP insiders. Modi’s removal from Bihar and his election to Rajya Sabha was seen as an encouragement to covert opposition to Kumar by state BJP leaders.
State BJP leaders started questioning Kumar's pet prohibition policy and openly asked for its revocation after a series of deaths due to consumption of illicit liquor in the state last year and earlier this year. They also started questioning Kumar’s style of functioning.
Earlier this month, some BJP leaders of the state floated Kumar’s name as the next Vice President of India. The election to the Vice President’s post will take place in July. The JD(U) leaders close to Kumar were quick to rubbish the proposal (read ). They asserted that Kumar will continue in the Chief Minister’s post.
Soon after those assertions, Bihar BJP president Sanjay Jaiswal that while Kumar is the Chief Minister now, nothing could be said about the future. Jaiswal had, in January this year, to JD(U) leaders against “playing twitter games” with Prime Minister Modi. The warning came after a between the leaders of the two allies over Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Jaiswal had warned JD(U) leaders against crossing the ‘Lakshman rekha’.
This sort of friction and quarrels between the two allies has become quite common. But the skirmishes will not escalate into a full-blown battle that can break the alliance. This is because the BJP needs Nitish Kumar, at least till the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The BJP won 17 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2019 and the JD(U) won 16 while the LJP (which had not split at that time) won six. The RJD drew a blank and the Congress won only one.
The BJP central leadership will be banking on the ruling alliance in Bihar to repeat its 2019 performance. A break in the alliance (the NDA) will scupper the BJP’s chances of winning a good number of seats in Bihar. And it is only under Kumar’s leadership that the NDA can hope to repeat its 2019 performance in Bihar.
As for Nitish Kumar, he knows that walking out of the NDA will not be a wise political move. It will mar his reputation and paint him as an unscrupulous and opportunistic politician who changes sides often.
Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) was part of the NDA since 1999, but broke away from the alliance in June 2013 over the projection of Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate by the BJP in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
He joined hands with archrival Lalu Yadav to form a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) that also included the Congress. The RJD-led alliance swept to power, winning 178 seats, while the NDA won only 58 seats.
In end-July 2017, Nitish Kumar walked out of the mahagathbandhan and returned to the NDA fold. He had then accused the RJD of being corrupt and encouraging criminals and lawlessness in Bihar.
The RJD would be happy to have Kumar back into the mahagathbandhan, but it would be politically suicidal to embrace the RJD once again after accusing Tejashwi Yadav and others in the RJD of corruption and having links with criminals and the mafia.
Hence, Kumar will not rock the NDA boat too much. But he will continue to encourage his close lieutenants to attack the BJP and respond to the BJP’s barbs against the JD(U).
Ties between the BJP and JD(U) will not be as smooth as they were before 2020 when Sushil Modi could be counted on to iron out differences between the two allies and keep Kumar in good humour.
By visiting Rabri Devi’s residence, the Bihar Chief Minister wanted to send out a message to the BJP leadership that he should not be taken for granted and that if push comes to shove, he has options before him. But he will not leave the NDA and return to the RJD-led mahagathbandhan.
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