Mahagathbandhan on the brink: Will Nitish Kumar look past Lalu's transgressions to save alliance?

Nitish Kumar has not taken kindly to a veiled threat by the RJD, reminding him that the party has 80 members in Bihar's legislative Assembly, as against only 71 for JDU. This show of bravado by Lalu Prasad Yadav's party has only strained already fragile relations between the two major coalition partners in Bihar.

RJD, JDU and Congress had joined hands ahead of the 2015 Bihar Assembly polls, and contested 100, 100 and 50 seats respectively. The three parties won 80, 71 and 27 seats respectively. The RJD leaders' statement had a message in store for Nitish — that Lalu Yadav remained the senior member of the coalition, while JDU remained No. 2 in the state. It was to remind the chief minister that it was RJD's support base that catapulted the grand alliance to power.

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Image courtesy: CNN-News18

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Image courtesy: CNN-News18

Nitish had asked for a specific and categorical response on a series of corruption charges, including acquisition of benami prime properties in Patna and elsewhere, and involvement in shell companies, against Lalu's two sons and senior Cabinet colleagues, Tejashwi Yadav and Tej Pratap. The issue, as JDU leaders considered close to Nitish Kumar point out, is over allowing such politicians, considered neck deep in corruption, benami assets and shell companies, to be on his Cabinet.

Instead of a point-by-point rebuttal of charges made by the CBI, Income Tax, and Enforcement Directorate, what Lalu and his family gave people of the state was loads of rhetoric and accusations of political vendetta against the RSS-BJP Sangh. Not a word was said in response to the allegations, regarding acquisition of prime properties in Patna, Delhi and elsewhere in the country. All we got was a blatant display of goondaism by Tejawashi's safarai-clad police guards thrashing mediapersons at the state secretariat. What's more, chief minister Nitish Kumar holds the home ministry and maintenance of law and order is under his command and control.

It was under such a delicately poised situation that senior RJD leader Ramchandra Purve reminded JDU of his party's numbers in Parliament (RJD has four members, JDU has two in the Lok Sabha) and the state Assembly, and the "massive" social support it still enjoys in the state.

This is what has angered JDU. Consider what party leaders had to say over the issue. National general secretary Sanjay Jha reminded RJD of the dismal vote share it received when not in alliance with JDU; the party's MLA count had gone as low as 22 when not part of the "mahagathbandhan", but together the grand alliance received 178 seats. This, JDU said, is not due to the leader of one party. If the RJD thinks it can get more votes on its own, they should remember the 2010 Assembly elections, when Lalu's wife Rabri Devi lost her seats from both constituencies she contested.

So it's now down to the Congress which has the capability and command to bring about a truce between its two warring allies. Sonia Gandhi assumed the role of an arbitrator, calling Lalu and Nitish to the discussion table. A Congress spokesperson in Patna confirmed that the two leaders were in talks with Sonia Gandhi, who was keen that the matter be amicably resolved.

It's not known whether Lalu or Nitish or someone else had urged Sonia to play troubleshooter, or whether her moral positioning was such that Nitish would forget all about his tough "zero tolerance" stance on corruption and embrace Lalu and Tejashwi despite all the revelations against them, despite all the recently filed cases against them. Nitish has proven that he is the master of his own mind, by backing NDA on issues like GST, demonetisation, surgical strikes, and more recently, the presidential election.

Sources even said that he refused to take Rahul Gandhi's call while recovering in Rajgir, and spoke to the Congress vice-president only after returning to Patna.

That Sonia's call to Lalu and Nitish did not have the desired impact is apparent from the fact that JDU has not backed off from its stiff positioning that Tejashwi and Tej Pratap must respond specifically about where the money to acquire prime properties in Patna and elsewhere came from. There are enough indications that the RJD-JDU-Congress coalition in Bihar is tottering to its fall, the only question is when.

Updated Date: Jul 14, 2017 21:54 PM

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