Nitish Kumar real winner of Bihar seat-sharing formula for 2019 polls, not NDA; JD(U) chief played politics well to retain importance
Looking at the NDA's seat-sharing formula for Bihar, it remains to be seen whether the BJP has promised Nitish Kumar enough to keep the JD(U) leader's prime ministerial ambitions under wraps.
The National Democratic Alliance on Sunday announced the much-awaited breakup of the Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, putting to rest once and for all speculation on whether the BJP will hold its own or give in to the demands of allies for a bigger chunk of the constituencies. Looking at the numbers announced, the latter appears to have won — BJP chief Amit Shah announced that the saffron party and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) (JDU) will both contest from 17 seats and Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) will fight it out from six constituency.
In addition to this seat-sharing formula, the NDA also nominated Paswan as its Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar.
The discussions between the constituents of the BJP-led NDA in Bihar for seat-sharing for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections have been in focus in political circles as they follow the recent troubles in the alliance in the state. On 19 December, the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) had left the NDA, with its president Upendra Kushwaha blaming the split on the "arrogance" of the BJP and the Bihar chief minister.
Kushwaha had also quit as a Union minister, following disagreements with Nitish and the BJP leadership over a seat-sharing offer that was "not respectable and, hence, not acceptable". But he had refused to divulge the number of seats the RLSP — which has two seats in the 40-member Bihar Assembly and three in the Lok Sabha — was offered.
However, the one to emerge the most gleeful out of this deal is the Bihar chief minister. Despite winning only two Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 elections of the 38 it had contested, the BJP has now offered it an equal representation from the NDA. The JD(U) had also lost deposits in 23 seats. One could also call this a "comeback" for Nitish, who has harboured prime ministerial ambitions, which were popularly the reason why his JD(U) had quit the NDA and contested the 2014 Lok Sabha polls solo.
Another reason that proves why the deal was win-win for the JD(U) is the lower representation for the LJP, which will contest only six seats as compared to seven in the last parliamentary election. This is most likely why the Paswan was offered a Rajya Sabha ticket instead.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had won 22 seats from Bihar. For the saffron party to bow to the JD(U)'s demands and cut back on its share of seats in Bihar indicates that the BJP is wary of losing out on more allies and any possible dissent or difference of opinion ahead of the elections. To ensure this, Nitish's support in the eastern state was vital, regardless of his abysmal loss in the 2014 polls.
"Seat-sharing was a unanimous decision that was made keeping in mind the political situation on the ground in Bihar. All the three parties are hopeful that the NDA will win more seats together than it had won in the 2014 general elections," Shah told reporters after announcing the seat-sharing formula.
The key here is "keeping in mind the political situation". This statement by the BJP president holds an undertone of apprehension that the current political situation is of dissent, as well as of people's disenchantment with the BJP. Losing out on the support of either regional party in Bihar would have cost the BJP in the coming months.
Coming back to Nitish. The Bihar chief minister had the support of a number of Bihar BJP legislators for the post of prime minister ahead of the last parliamentary elections. The BJP leaders were not pleased about Nitish being ignored for the post over Narendra Modi, and neither was the Bihar chief minister. Miffed over the move — though not on record — Nitish had quit the NDA and the JD(U) contested the 2014 elections alone, only to fare the worst among all parties in Bihar.
After the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, the JD(U) had jumped boats and allied with the Rashtriya Janaya Dal (RJD) and Congress to form the so-called mahagathbandhan, which also marked a shift in political ideology. Even then, Nitish remained vocal about the Centre's policies, such as demonetisation, that he was not particularly pleased with. Club this with Ram Vilas Paswan's son Chirag's statement that the BJP was focussed on "non-issues" like the Ram Temple, and not the "real issue" of development, and we have a very nervous BJP.
Nitish is a smart, 68-year-old politician who plays his cards well. He learnt from his mistakes from 2014 and manoeuvered the BJP well this time to ensure that the JD(U) got what it wanted. That the BJP is on shaky ground is evident to all, let alone the Bihar chief minister, and he played this to his advantage. The seat-sharing formula for Bihar was not only a safe decision by the BJP, but also a masterstroke by Nitish, whose prime ministerial ambitions could just resurface closer to 2019.
Now it remains to be seen whether the BJP has promised Nitish enough to keep these ambitions under wraps. But this is where it would be significant to mention Kushwaha's remarks: The RLSP chief had alleged that there's a "group of NDA leaders in Bihar that doesn't want to see Narendra Modi as the prime minister again".
Kushwaha was perhaps the most amused by the figures the NDA announced on Sunday. Amit Shah told reporters gathered at the press conference in Delhi that the BJP will be contesting from the same number of seats as its former rival — Nitish's JDU was earlier part of the Mahagathbandhan with the RJD and Congress — and gave his current rivals much reason to laugh.
"The BJP always used to say they have a 56-inch chest, but now it seems they've bowed down in front of Nitish Kumar and divided seats equally. But people do not care about how many seats you contest on, they will vote for the one who works for the public," he had said.
The RJD wasn't quiet either about the NDA announcement. Party leader and Leader of Opposition in the Bihar Assembly Tejashwi Yadav had claimed that the BJP had given into arm-twisting by both Nitish and Paswan in an attempt to retain power in the state. "Now you can understand the dire straits the NDA is in," he said.
He might as well be right. The BJP's recent losses in Assembly elections have the party on the back foot, a situation that Nitish has milked well for itself in the Hindi heartland state.
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