Nitish Kumar hits out at Congress: Is the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar heading for a split?

Ever since Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar announced support for the NDA presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, speculations have been rife that the ruling Grand Alliance of JD(U)-RJD-Congress in the state is heading for a split.

After the historic win in the last Bihar Assembly election, a rift between Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, leaders of the two largest factions of the Mahagathbandhan, first came to light in March 2017. The Supreme Court delivered a judgment, reviving criminal conspiracy charges against Lalu in the pending cases in the fodder scam.

Soon after, names of Lalu's family members also cropped up in the Benami property deal case. The problem for Nitish was that those charged also included deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav, senior minister Tej Pratap, and Rajya Sabha MP Misa Bharti. Nitish has been careful in reacting to these charges against his alliance partner and his family, not once coming out in his support. He realised he had more to lose than anybody else if he chose sides unwisely at the time.

Cut to late June: Right after Nitish had announced his decision to support Kovind's candidature, Lalu was quick to point out that Kumar has made a "historical mistake", stirring up a hornet's nest.

The chief minister's relationship with the third faction in the alliance, Congress, has not fared particularly well either. In what is being seen as the latest threat to the Mahagathbandhan, Nitish on Monday that said Congress should present an alternative agenda against the Narendra Modi government and merely harping on Opposition unity won't help the country, while denying reports of differences between Congress and JD(U), The Economic Times reported.

On Sunday, Nitish attacked JD(U)'s ally Congress after the latter accused him of "dumping Mahatma Gandhi's ideology", CNN-News18 reported. "We do not follow anyone, we are clear with our principles," he said.

File image of Nitish Kumar. CNN-News18

File image of Nitish Kumar. CNN-News18

However, on Sunday, he tried to clarify his previous statement. "What I said during party meeting was in a particular context, don't interpret it differently. There is no threat to Mahagathbandhan," he said.

It is not hard to miss that his final sentence is perhaps not very accurate, if one went by what JD(U) leaders have had to say about the party's relationship with ally Congress.

Nitish blamed Congress for the "current mess" in the Opposition, adding that the "idea of a Sangh-mukht Bharat cannot fructify without taking all Opposition parties into confidence'', according to The Indian Express. He went on to express his displeasure with Congress over the way the party announced their presidential candidate, and blamed Congress for not taking JD(U) into confidence for the presidential polls, the report says.

Other party leaders like KC Tyagi have also been vocal about a possible split, wondering why the Congress seemed bent on pushing the Grand Alliance towards its end. “Our support to Kovind is an isolated incident. Why are some people bent on making it permanent with such comments and shortening the life of our Grand Alliance?” Financial Express quoted Tyagi as saying.

Another JD(U) leader Sanjay Jha in a Facebook post attacked the Congress for questioning Nitish. His post said, “A Congress leader has issued a statement on Nitish Kumar’s principles. This leader is the member of the same Congress Youth Brigade which was busy destroying democratic values and principles during the Emergency. I would like to remind the senior Congress leader that Nitish Kumar had to spend 19 months in jail, along with lakhs of others across the country, because of the principles of the Congress and youth leaders like himself.”

According to a report in The Times of IndiaKumar was also unhappy with Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad's recent remark made at an iftar dinner in Patna on 21 June about the presidential election. Azad had reportedly criticised the JD(U) chief indirectly saying, "People who have one principle make one decision, but those who believe in many principles make different decisions," according to NDTV.

Financial Express reported that Bihar Congress has said that the party high command in Delhi would review the statements by JD(U) leaders, not the state unit.

But senior JD(U) leader Pavan Varma, in an interview with The Quint, said that it would be wrong to presume that Nitish will leave the Mahagathbandhan for the NDA just because of the way recent events have shaped up. "The Grand Alliance was configured with great care and attention to detail in 2015. It has the mandate of the people. I don’t believe Nitish (Nitish Kumar) intends to break it," the report quoted Varma as saying.

If a split does indeed happen, most of the involved parties stand with nothing much to gain. In the 243-member Bihar Legislative Assembly, RJD is still the largest party with a strength of 80 MLAs. Nitish's JD(U) is the second largest party with 71 MLAs, followed by BJP with 53 MLAs, Congress with 27 MLAs and five MLAs from other parties. To form the government, a party or an alliance needs 122 seats out of the 243.

Arithmetic tells us that any rift in the Mahagathbandhan will spell a hung parliament. Even if only Congress moves away, JD(U) and RJD will remain short of 15 MLAs. The other parties are also of no use for the RJD as they have just five MLAs among them.

The only other two parties with any hope of forming an alliance, in case the Grand Alliance collapses, are JD(U) and BJP. The JD(U) already has 71 MLAs, so to form or retain power without the help of RJD and the Congress, Nitish will need at least 51 MLAs.

This leaves BJP as the only other party with the required number — in fact more than sufficient with its 53 MLAs — in the Bihar Assembly to help JD(U) remain in power. In short, both RJD and Congress will be affected the most if the troika in Bihar is broken, and Nitish decides to go with the BJP. But if he does that, he will have to go back on the scathing attacks on the BJP that he has made in the past.

Nitish has not commented yet on RJD rally "BJP hatao, desh bachao", which is scheduled for August. He also did not refer to the BJP or Modi in his speech on Sunday. “Mein kissi ke peechhe-peechhe nahin chalta, balki apni nitiyon par kayam rahta hoon (I am not the one to follow others, I follow my policies)," he said. Following demonetisation, Nitish had said the stated objectives of curbing black money and corruption could be achieved only if "notebandi" was followed up with a war on benami property.

If nothing else, one thing is clear: Nitish likes to keep his options open as far as possible. As far as the Mahagathbandhan is concerned, only time will tell how long an alliance as fragile as that can survive.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jul 03, 2017 19:24 PM

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