If you want to know the direction of the political contest in the country, keep an eye on Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. The way he swings in the end—towards the BJP, away from it or decides to occupy the fence—will give us a clear idea of what is going to happen in 2019.
After sitting quietly in the NDA dugout for a few months, Kumar has once again come out to bat on the 2019 poll pitch. Currently, he is showing signs of a batsman who knows that he is staring at a pitch that is difficult to read, can turn either way and may become unplayable in the final stages. So, like every smart captain who dreads the uncertainty of an unreliable turf, he has decided to bat first even before the toss.
On Sunday, the JD(U) core committee met in Patna and unilaterally announced that Kumar is the face of NDA in Bihar, reminding its partner that his party is the largest constituent of the coalition. His assertion of self-importance is being seen as a ploy to put pressure on the BJP to divvy up the 40 Lok Sabha seats to the JD(U)’s satisfaction.
Kumar’s gambit is understandable. On paper, he is—at least in self-assessment—the formidable leader with ‘Bihari DNA’ who has been the chief minister of the state for almost two decades. During these years, he has by turn beaten the BJP, the Congress and the RJD with different partners. In the 2015 elections, his party won 71 seats against the BJP’s 53. This, in Kumar’s opinion, entitles him to the role of the big boss of Bihar.
But, the counter-question in the BJP’s mind is this: What exactly does Kumar bring to the electoral table? Does he not benefit from opportunistic alliances that he later discards? What exactly is Kumar’s worth in the poll market? In 2014, Kumar’s party contested independently and won just two Lok Sabha seats. His candidates were second in four seats. Everywhere else, the contest was a direct fight between the NDA and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD.
This theory of Kumar being a glorified pillion rider has been vindicated by recent bypolls in Bihar. When allowed to contest from Jahanabad—a former BJP citadel—and Jokihat, the JD(U) lost by huge margins. In Jokihat, the JD(U) polled just about 40,000 votes against the RJD’s 83,000. This vote share, as RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav pointed out, was just about the same as what the BJP’s polled in 2015 and Kumar’s presence had not led to any transfer of votes to the NDA.
So, in practice, Kumar is at best entitled to a 10-15 percent share of seats. Why then would the NDA consider giving him a bigger share in the state in 2019, especially when it means denying tickets to some of its 31 incumbent parliamentarians and annoying loyal partners like Ram Vilas Paswan and Upendra Kushwaha? This thought has probably prompted Kumar to rush out of the dugout and unilaterally announce himself captain of the NDA XI in Bihar.
Kumar has realised that the political situation in the country is fluid, especially amidst talks on a grand alliance that would take on the BJP. At the moment, every regional party is weighing its options. Even committed partners like TDP, Shiv Sena and Akali Dal have either decided to walk out of the alliance or are contemplating a divorce. In this season of break-ups and bewafai (infidelity), Kumar may be tempted to reconsider the merits of wafai (loyalty) to the BJP.
The joke in Patna is that the JD(U) office on Bir Chand Patel Road is just walking distance from those of BJP and RJD. And Kumar is so fickle and confused that he keeps walking from one to the other, on a whim or fancy, sometimes choosing different venues for breakfast and lunch. Others may or may not take the joke seriously but the BJP certainly does. It knows Kumar’s loyalty changes periodically, depending on his ambition and state of mind.
The next election would underline the importance of each and every constituency. In the event of a united Opposition taking on the BJP, even a few seats—like in Karnataka—could decide who forms the government. The BJP would certainly not like to let Kumar be in a situation where he has 10 to 15 winning candidates and can barter them for his own ambition. The BJP would like, as much as possible, to keep as much as possible in its own bag in Bihar, making Kumar just a minority stakeholder. Kumar wants to avoid this scenario and bargain for as many seats as possible.
Coming back to the original hypothesis, keep a close eye on Kumar. If he is convinced that the BJP is going to beat the Opposition without breaking into a sweat, he will take whatever deal the BJP offers. If he realises that the BJP is on its way out, he will find an excuse to break away from it: Notice the noises he and his colleagues have been making on demonetisation, fuel-price hike and special status for Bihar.
And, if he is unsure about the outcome, he will try to occupy the fence, maybe become part of a non-BJP, non-Congress federal front that could be the kingmaker in 2019. Kumar is at the crease on a turning track. Follow him to predict the fortune of the mother of all games in 2019.
Updated Date: Jun 05, 2018 14:39 PM