Bihar Mahagathbandhan at crossroads: Seasoned Nitish keeps options open as heavyweights like Lalu fight it out
Saint Kabir’s message to his fellow man is clear: Beware! Don’t get caught between the wheels of the machine. If you do, you shall be ground to dust. It’s not that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar hasn’t read Kabir. He is a well-read man. Street-smart too. Little wonder then that he has leaped to safety from the machine.
Chalti Chakki Dekh Kar, Diya Kabira Roye;
Dui Paatan Ke Beech Mein, Sabut Bacha Na Koye.
Saint Kabir’s message to his fellow man is clear: Beware! Don’t get caught between the wheels of the machine. If you do, you shall be ground to dust.
It’s not that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar hasn’t read Kabir. He is a well-read man. Street-smart too. Little wonder then that he has leaped to safety from the machine.
He knows that he can’t afford to get caught in the crossfire between Bihar's two top political heavyweights — Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Sangh Parivar — so he watches the brazen slugfest from a safe distance, allowing the warring parties enough elbow room.
Above all, Kumar is a survivor.
To understand Kumar’s otherwise enviable position better, you need to first examine the political realities in Bihar: Kumar’s JD(U), which happens to the weakest of the three forces, can’t come to power on its own muscle. And at the same time, none of the other parties can take office without cooperation from the JD(U).
And that's the truth of Bihar politics: You can't form a government without joining hands with a rival power.
The BJP and RJD can't get together. Obviously. But Kumar is free to align with either party. Flexibility is his forte.
After all, he got along fabulously with the BJP from 1996 to 2013. Remember, he was a Cabinet minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government till 2004. And after the JD(U) and the BJP jointly fought the Bihar Assembly elections in 2005 and 2010, he was rewarded with the position of chief minister. To be fair, Kumar did justice to the position. Those were the good old days when the BJP never got tired of singing his praises.
But things changed rather dramatically after Kumar became allergic to Narendra Modi in the run up to 2014 general election. The 14-year-old tie-up between the two parties snapped rather abruptly.
Both the JD(U) and RJD, which fought the last Lok Sabha polls separately, bit the dust after BJP bagged 22 of 40 seats. Lalu’s party won just four seats in comparison to Kumar’s two in this all-important election. Indeed, this was the turning point that taught them an invaluable lesson: United we stand, divided we fall.
In the run up to 2015 Assembly polls, JD(U), RJD and the Congress came together to fight the BJP. It was a massive success. The RJD emerged as the single largest party with 80 seats, followed by JD(U) which won 71 seats.
BJP, which bagged 53 seats, was a distant third, even though they topped the vote share count with 24.4 percent, followed by the RJD (18.4 percent), JD(U) (16.8 percent) and Congress (6.7 percent). Significantly, the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) vote share totalled a whopping 41.9 percent.
As leader of the Grand Alliance, Kumar was rewarded with the chief minister's chair. But from time to time, Kumar kept his friends on edge. For example, he was all praise for Modi's demonetisation move late last year. And now he is seen supporting the NDA presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, much to the disgust of the RJD rank-and-file.
Why on earth is he doing this? One plausible reason could be that he wants to retain his otherwise “clean image” even as Lalu Prasad Yadav's reputation seems to have taken a hit in the face of the high-profile raids on his properties by various investigative agencies. Or he could be trying to rein in the 'loudmouths of the Lalu brigade.'
But this is all conjecture. No one knows if Kumar has decided to dump the Grand Alliance and once and for all switch over to the saffron camp.
But here are two reasons why he may not make this move any time soon:
1. Modi has grown into a political colossus. No leader in India, Kumar included, rivals the stature of the prime minister. Even if Kumar shakes off Yadav and the Congress, he may not receive an "honourable position" within the NDA. The BJP is, for all practical purposes, a one-man show. Gone are the days where a useful ally of Kumar's stature could conceive of becoming deputy prime minister. A lot has changed.
2. Kumar knows he can survive only within the Grand Alliance. To do that, he may have to rebuild shaky bridges.
Will he? Time will tell. And Kumar must keep in mind Dale Carnegie's famous quote: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”
Even more so in politics.
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