Nitish Kumar sends message to BJP with state cabinet expansion: Party may control Centre, but in Bihar, his is the last word

When Nitish Kumar landed in Patna on Saturday after attending the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Council of Ministers, he made an exception to himself, not being economical with words. He spoke at length of the actual conversations that took place between him and BJP president Amit Shah, between him and BJP general secretary-in-charge of Bihar, and the deliberations within his own party over the "symbolic" one ministerial berth that was offered to his party JD(U) and his rejection of it.

He maintained that he had no qualms about it, and that the BJP-JD(U) relationship was as strong as ever and the two would unitedly continue to serve the people of Bihar.

 Nitish Kumar sends message to BJP with state cabinet expansion: Party may control Centre, but in Bihar, his is the last word

Nitish Kumar and Amit Shah during their meeting recently. PTI

Nitish is a mature and seasoned leader. He means what he says and thus has he has built a reputation of a no-nonsense, astute administrator and wily politician. It’s not very often that he gives vent to his feelings in public but when he does, he conveys strong message to all concerned.

His words about his alliance with the BJP, the coalition government in the state, and his support to the Modi government at the Centre should be taken at face value — their relationship was not going to be impacted in immediate term. In his brief statement, Kumar used the word “symbolic” representation on multiple occasions, both in English and Hindi “sanketic pratnidhitav” and how that was unacceptable to him and his party.

But then this statement was given at an occasion when there as was so much to read between the lines. He gave a loud and clear message to the BJP leadership, more particularly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. He didn’t mince his words in reminding them as to how coalition partners were handled in terms of giving berth in the Council of Ministers in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government (1998-2004) and the present JD(U)-BJP coalition government in Bihar, as to how the established norm in this regard was that of proportional representation (number of berths in Cabinet determined by number of seats an ally had, major or minor) and why the idea to have only one minister at the Centre for JD(U), which had 16 Lok Sabha MPs and six Rajya Sabha MPs, was not acceptable. Without saying in as many words he had made his displeasure known.

Thus when the news broke on Saturday that Nitish was going to expand his Cabinet in Bihar, there was hardly any doubts as to what was going to unfold. By expanding his cabinet, all eight from JD(U), Nitish took his turn to show that Modi-Shah may have the last word about the nature of the NDA government at the Centre, but when it comes to Bihar, his was the last word.

In politics, timing of a move is most important thing, both in conveying a message and making the desired impact among those concerned. Nitish's political astuteness lay in timing of his Cabinet expansion and in offering one berth to the BJP (just as they were offered one at the Centre).

This was seen as his "tit for tat" to the BJP. By making such headlines, he had succeeded in what he intended to. But then as a seasoned politician, he knows that after having given a message to the right quarters, he shouldn’t escalate it to distress point. And the BJP doesn't want to escalate it either.

It was not without reason that both Nitish and his deputy in Bihar from BJP Sushil Kumar Modi sat next to each other (as protocol would also demand) and then both of them came together to give sound bites to the gathered media, playing down political import of Cabinet expansion.

Nitish is right when he says that as per the proportional representation, five seats from JD(U) quota was vacant and then there were three vacancies on account of election of two ministers, Dinesh Yadav and Rajeev Ranjan alias Lalan Singh as MPs, and earlier there was one resignation, Manju Verma. The JD(U) has 70 MLAS while the BJP has 53 MLAs in the 248-member Bihar Legislative Assembly. With the latest expansion, the Bihar Cabinet has 33 ministers including the chief minister. JD(U) along with Chief Minister Nitish has 21 ministers and BJP has 12. If Nitish chooses to expand his council of ministers to fullest permissible limit then he can induct two more ministers.

It’s true that the BJP made some compromise in the run-up to parliamentary elections, agreeing to contest only 17 seats (five less than what it had won in 2014 and 13 less than what it had contested in 2014) and give equal number of seats to JD(U). The BJP had then attributed it to the importance of the coalition and how it values its allies.

Bihar elections is due in October-November 2020. Nitish has played his first card in game of brinkmanship.

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Updated Date: Jun 03, 2019 18:30:13 IST