New Delhi: Over the past two-and-a-half decades, Nitish Kumar's present ally, friend-turned-foe-turned-friend again, Lalu Prasad Yadav, has claimed to be the 'kingmaker'. He and his wife Rabri Devi have been the reigning king and queen of Bihar, and their position in each parliamentary election has been considered critical to the formation of prospective governments at the Centre.
On some occasions, as in 1996, 1997, 2004, he came true on his boastful claims while on others, like in 1998 and 1999, he failed. His failures amounted to success for Nitish Kumar.
Lalu was completely marginalised in the 2009 and 2014 parliamentary elections. But in both these elections Nitish couldn't gain much either. The RJD chief bounced back in his 'kingmaker' role in the 2015 Bihar assembly elections, ensuring his ally Nitish's return to the throne. While he and two of his sons became the power behind the throne.
What unfolded in the JD(U) national council meeting in New Delhi on Sunday becomes significant in this context. Nitish Kumar finally became JD(U) president, something he had avoided for over two decades after he founded JD(U) or the erstwhile Samata Party.
In his inaugural address as party president, he said, "All opposition parties ought to set aside their differences and forge a strong front against the ruling party (BJP)....We stopped them (BJP) in Bihar and we are working to stop them in UP."
He charged that Modi had unleashed "adhinayakvad" and claimed that BJP's politics could cause serious damage to the nation.
By doing so, Nitish clearly and formally bared his ambitions to spread his reach beyond the boundaries of Bihar, and position himself as a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019.
That is the reason why he needed to occupy the top organisational post of his party and propose a merger with smaller regional parties like Ajit Singh's RLD, Babulal Marandi's JVM and open negotiations with some other sub-regional parties.
Ahead of the merger, Nitish may give a Rajya Sabha berth to Ajit Singh. Out of five Rajya Sabha seats from Bihar, which will fall vacant in July, two will go to the JD(U) kitty. There could be a toss for another seat on the JD(U) quota between Sharad Yadav, Babulal Marandi, KC Tayagi, Pawan Verma and an n-number of other aspirants.
Interestingly, Lalu's RJD is not in the list of parties that are to merge in due course to form a new political entity - the Jan Vikas Party.
The question is why did Nitish not persuade Lalu to be a part of this new merger proposal? Does Nitish want to pursue his "national" political path sans Lalu's image baggage?
That presents an interesting situation, which is being talked about privately in JD(U)-RJD circles.
Nitish's decision last week to impose total prohibition in the state was a critical step in this regard -- the king taking his own decision without aid, advise or influence of the kingmaker or his deputies in the government.
By doing so Nitish has also carved a strong social constituency, outside of the influence of the RJD chief, for himself and for his party.
Under the existing alliance arrangement in Bihar, if the same was to continue for the 2019 parliamentary elections -- out of 40 parliamentary seats in the state, Nitish's JD(U) would contest 16 seats, Lalu's RJD 16 and Congress eight.
Imagine what kind of a prime ministerial contender Nitish would be, whose party's claim to fame was to contest only on 16 seats.
Nitish and his principal strategists realise that it wouldn't be a happy situation.
Even the likes of Deve Gowda and IK Gujaral represented the then unified Janata Dal, when political "accidents" made them prime ministers.
By spreading his wings in UP, Jharkhand and in some other states and by being president of a party which at least had presence in more than one state, token or otherwise, Nitish's claim to be a PM contender would become somewhat decent.
There are many 'ifs' but as the saying goes "if wishes were horses...". Post Bihar assembly elections, Nitish and his core team are riding high on aspirations and belief. Close supporters of the Bihar Chief Minister are also assuming that Rahul Gandhi would not be a prime ministerial contender even if such a situation arises.
The Congress vice-president would look for his own 'Manmohan Singh'. But they tend to forget that Sonia Gandhi nominated Manmohan Singh from inside her party, not just because he had a clean image but because it was taken that he would always be pliant. She didn't look for a 'Sharad Pawar' outside of her party or a 'Pranab Mukherjee' inside her party.
Nitish's man of the moment and official advisor, Prashant Kishor, is managing Congress's campaign in UP and Punjab. Will Nitish's party fight UP elections in alliance with Congress? Well, nobody has a clue yet. But it is expected that Kishor's direct access to Rahul will help cement the Nitish-Congress relationship.
Only a few months ago, Nitish's big bang bid for the merger of SP, JD(U), RJD, INLD, JD(S) and some other parties failed. There was no meeting point on leadership, flag, party name, asset, resource mobilisation and distribution.
This time around Nitish has been accepted as the "development icon" and the supreme leader, and the parties joining him will have only regional or sub-regional interest. For now, Jan Vikas Party is on the drawing board stage and is yet to cross several hurdles to come into being, if at all.