Presidential Election 2017: Nitish Kumar trying to get rid of Lalu Prasad Yadav is a repeat of his 2013 strategy with BJP
On 16 June, 2013, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar broke his party's 17-year-old alliance with the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), protesting against the elevation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Time has come full circle in Bihar. The kind of political upheaval that the state is experiencing because of the presidential election is reminiscent of what had happened four years ago.
On 16 June, 2013, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar broke his party's 17-year-old alliance with the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), protesting against the elevation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was then appointed as the chiarman of BJP's election campaign committee for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Friction between the BJP and Janata Dal (United) started surfacing as soon as demands of moving Modi from Gujarat and giving him a bigger responsibility in the general election started gaining momentum.
Elevation of Modi had crushed any remote chance of projecting Nitish as the prime ministerial candidate by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). On the other hand, JD(U) had constantly been projecting him as prime minister material. However, Nitish chose to take the easy route of 'secularism' to part ways with the BJP.
Secularism became the key in the war of words between JD(U) and BJP before the alliance broke. Nitish publicly said, "We cannot compromise on our basic principles, values and our stand on core issues which are central to the ethos of our party." He reiterated in the state Assembly that JD(U) will not compromise with secularism.
By overtly attacking the leadership, Nitish wanted BJP to pull the plug from the ruling NDA in the state. He in fact criticised his own cabinet colleagues who were from the BJP. However, the BJP was not in a hurry and also wanted to expose Nitish while being a part of the government. The BJP-JD(U) relationship took an ugly turn when BJP alleged that Nitish invited Modi for dinner and cancelled it at the last moment.
After getting decimated by the Modi wave in 2014 general election, Nitish decided to join hands with Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) whom he had derided for over two decades. It was projected as a secular alliance and meeting of two old factions of the Janata Parivar. However, in reality, it was caste equation which played in the minds of both the old guards as they feared that the Modi juggernaut will leave no chance for them in 2015 Assembly election in Bihar.
Nitish is trying to get rid of Lalu
Now four years later, a thaw in the Modi-Nitish relationship is visible to the extent that lately both have started to admire each other's way of governance. Back home, the RJD and its top leadership – Lalu and family who are embroiled in corruption charges – are proving to be a headache for Nitish.
Insiders within the JD(U) believe that Nitish can't compromise with his clean image. With rising incidents of crime and unemployment in Bihar, Nitish's good governance plank is not working for him in his third term.
With falling approval ratings, the state has made him a worried man. Moreover, similar to 2013, Nitish has sensed that there is a chance for him to play a prominent role at the Centre. "Uttar Pradesh election results have changed equations. Now everybody, including Nitish, feels that Modi wave has not waned. On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi is all set to take reins of the party by the end of this year and the Congress will never accept any other leader to lead the Opposition,” a close aide of Nitish said.
However, Nitish clearly knows how to maneuver at political arena. He is now pushing the RJD to the wall as he tried to do with the BJP in 2013. Lalu, whose party banks on Muslim-Yadav arithmetic for survival, has again played the same old "secular" card which a shrewd politician like Nitish can easily dump, given his 17 years of close association with the saffron party.
The BJP is ready to embrace Nitish once again. If it was the RJD who was making overtures to Nitish in 2014 to leave the saffron alliance, now it is the BJP who is doing the same. The BJP state unit chief Nityanand Rai said, "Nitish should not believe he is alone. We are with him."
Nitish has now made it categorically clear that he would not reverse his decision to back NDA presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind. Hinting at political realignment, he sarcastically said that the Congress led Opposition parties are preparing a strategy for their defeat in 2019 general election and he would not support them.
In rhetoric, he is the same old Nitish, who once accused the BJP of acting against the principles of coalition. This time, the only difference is that the RJD will be at the receiving end. Nitish has already rebuffed his political partner Lalu's allegation that he was acting against the agreed principles and reminded him that Mahagathbandhan was formed only for Bihar.
The JD(U) has already distanced itself from ongoing the Income Tax Department investigations against Lalu's family. His younger son Tejashwi is deputy chief minister of Bihar and elder son Tej Pratap is health minister in Nitish's cabinet.
Like in 2013, Nitish himself does not want to break the alliance but has certainly hinted at his intent. The tipping point in the alliance could be filing of charges against Lalu's sons, which might prompt Nitish to sack them from the cabinet. For now, the politics of Bihar has turned into a tennis court and both sides are waiting for the match point.
Alok Kumar is the executive editor of News18 Bihar/Jharkhand
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