Wary Nitish digs in for the battle of 2020

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar wants to pre-empt any attempt by his alliance partner BJP, fresh from its Lok Sabha triumph, to execute a plan for a JD(U)-mukt Bihar

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From the looks of it, Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) president Nitish Kumar is reinventing his image. This, of course, to pre-empt any attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to execute a plan for JD(U)-mukt Bihar—a state that goes to elections next year.

Relations between the two parties have been strained ever since the BJP offered one paltry Union Cabinet berth to the JD(U). Nitish, in what appeared to a retaliation, promptly expanded his own Cabinet by eight ministers and offered the BJP a single berth.

The Iftar party recently hosted by his party—separate from the BJP’s—became another statement of this rift, and was seen as an attempt by Nitish to bolster his secular image. The pictures of him wearing a skullcap were criticised by newly re-elected BJP MP Giriraj Singh as ‘anti-Hindu’ although he was soon rebuked by BJP national president and Union home minister Amit Shah for making untoward remarks about alliance partners.

Still, the fact remains that political alliances in Bihar are dynamic, and Nitish is no exception. He was ‘Sushasan (good governance) Babu’, opponent of Narendra Modi in 2013, a partner of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in 2015 and a BJP ally since 2017. With each switch, he carved his base among the poor and backward in Bihar, occasionally allowing his national-level ambitions to soar. In 2019, Kumar and the BJP fought the Lok Sabha elections jointly, capturing 53 per cent of the votes to decimate the Congress-RJD alliance.

Now, with Assembly elections due in 2020, the political terrain lies wide open and the BJP and the JD(U) are bickering over their shares. Nitish’s vote bank consists of what is classified in Bihar as BC-2, or backward classes-2. They shifted in the recent Lok Sabha election to the BJP, eschewing other choices.

According to data from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), 67% of the Yadavs voted for the Congress-RJD alliance and of the remaining 33%, 20% transferred to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The BJP, it is speculated, seeks to contest in 100 out of 243 seats in Bihar in 2020, leaving 100 for the JD(U) and the remaining to Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), another alliance partner.

Nitish, the BJP and the LJP had jointly swept the 1999 Lok Sabha elections in Bihar. Within four months, the RJD returned to power in the Assembly. This reversal was ascribed to a backward-forward polarisation, but a repeat is unlikely if the BJP stamps out this polarisation. The leader who could have cashed in on the anti-forward sentiment, RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav, is in prison on corruption charges.

“The BJP negotiated seats for the 2019 polls in Bihar after losing in the Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections,” says Mahesh Agarwal, Bihar president of Seema Jagran Manch, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate. “That period cannot be equated with the post-Balakot strike scenario, when people were roused by nationalism and identified it with the BJP and the Prime Minister.”

The BJP’s confidence became evident at the time of forming the new Union Cabinet. On May 29, Shah summoned Nitish to Delhi and held a meeting with him that ran for over an hour. Yet, the BJP, which won 17 seats in Bihar, offered the JD(U)—which won 16 seats—just one Cabinet berth. “We were specifically told that we were getting symbolic inclusion,” says JD(U) leader KC Tyagi. “We feel Bihar has not been given proper representation in the central Cabinet and therefore declined.”

Upon his return to Bihar, Nitish quickly expanded his Cabinet by eight, all but two representing backward sections. The BJP, incidentally, has given five berths to BJP winners from Bihar, most representing the elite castes. “We have to care for our voters in the state too,” says a JD(U) leader.

Then came the Iftar. The Congress won one seat in Bihar, Kishanganj, but the JD(U) lost by just 34,000 votes, indicating that Muslims voted for Nitish’s candidate even after the party allied with the BJP.

“Nitish hasn’t grasped that the 303 seats that the BJP has won are its biggest weapon,” says Agarwal, adding that the overarching narrative of development and nationalism has changed politico-caste equations.

“At least, 55 % of Bihar’s votes are with the BJP and its allies. Half of women voters, a good proportion of Yadavs. There’s no beating it now,” adds Agarwal.

This is not an enthusiasm shared across the board. “In 2020, the JD(U) and the BJP may struggle even if they combine. The question is, will the JD(U) remain with the NDA next year,” a political watcher in Patna says. Should the BJP, RJD and JDU contest separately; each has roughly 20% votes so any two can (on paper) combine to win a bipolar contest.

In the still-evolving narrative, there are three possible combinations: Nitish minus BJP and with RJD, Nitish minus BJP and minus RJD, and Nitish with the Rashtiya Lok Samata Party of Upendra Kushwaha, Hindustan Awam Morcha of Jitan Manjhi, the LJP and the Congress.

The final possibility is a Nitish-mukt Bihar led by the BJP. “And this is what Nitish is doing damage control against,” says CSDS analyst Rakesh Ranjan.

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