Dancing with the strangler

46-Nitish-Kumar Man of the moment: Nitish Kumar with his partymen in Patna | PTI

Nitish took a calculated risk, but an ambitious BJP would be a different animal in 2020

On the evening of July 26, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad was preparing to go to Ranchi to appear before the CBI court in the fodder scam case hearing, when he received a call from Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. “Main pranam karta hoon. Yeh mera antim pranam hai (Accept my greetings. These are my last),” said Nitish, whose party, the Janata Dal (United), was an alliance partner of the RJD. “It will not be possible to go further,” Nitish told a stunned Lalu.

Nitish was on his way to the Raj Bhawan to meet Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi to submit his resignation. “What will not go further? What are you talking about?” Lalu asked. But Nitish hung up on him. Within minutes, the alliance was over.

Apparently, Lalu had known that something was amiss. That was why he did not take an earlier flight to Ranchi. Both the RJD and the JD(U) had legislature party meetings ahead of the upcoming assembly session that day. Ironically, the alliance had been formally announced exactly three years ago, on July 27, 2014, when the RJD, the JDU and the Congress had come together to contest 10 assembly seats in the byelections.

Curiously, when Nitish submitted his resignation to governor, answering the “call of his conscience” on the issue of corruption (by Lalu and his family), the BJP’s parliamentary board, the highest decision-making body in the party, was meeting in Delhi. It promptly announced the BJP would back Nitish, and within minutes Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted in his support. Nitish thanked him in a reply tweet.

Left with no choice, Lalu hit the road to Ranchi at 9pm. “It was a long painful journey as it rained heavily,” he said. He was constantly on the phone, monitoring the developments. His son Tejashwi Yadav, who was deputy chief minister in Nitish’s government, knocked at the Raj Bhawan at 2.30am, asking the governor to invite the single largest party, the RJD, to prove the majority first. The governor asked him to present the numbers at 11am.

But, by 10am, Nitish had taken oath as chief minister—the sixth time in 12 years. An old partner, BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi, took oath with him as deputy chief minister. “We knew the alliance between Nitish and Lalu would not last long. Even Ram Vilas Paswan (Union minister and leader of BJP ally Lok Janshakti Party) had predicted that this alliance would not last,” said Sushil Modi, who has got the key portfolios of finance and revenue. His house in Patna already had a regular stream of visitors dropping in.

49-The-BJP Flexing muscles: The BJP is likely to be a challenge for Nitish in 2020 | Arvind Jain

On the other hand, the mood at Lalu’s house—10 Circular Road, allotted to his wife, former chief minister Rabri Devi—was desolate. Only a few leaders who were close to Lalu were present. But his spirit was not down. He claimed Tejashwi Yadav’s growing popularity was the reason behind Nitish’s “betrayal”. “I will keep fighting,” he said.

The fight, however, will be an uphill task. Nitish’s desertion has made the tainted stamp on Lalu and his family indelible. And, he will be hounded by investigating agencies such as the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate. He would face a bigger challenge in fighting the public perception as he tries to bring together disparate opposition parties.

The only silver lining for him has been the spirited performance of Tejashwi Yadav, who is now the leader of opposition in the assembly. His 40-minute speech during the floor test debate, accusing Nitish of opportunism, won admiration. However, things will not be easy for him. He is an accused in the IRCTC hotel scam case, and faces charges of tax evasion and benami land deals.

But the man of the moment is Nitish Kumar. In 2013, he walked out of the NDA, when the BJP announced Narendra Modi as prime ministerial candidate. Three years earlier, he had humiliated the BJP by cancelling a dinner he was supposed to host for its leaders during its national executive meeting in Patna. Nitish was peeved at local newspapers carrying advertisements of Gujarat government’s Rs 5 crore aid for Kosi flood relief. Modi was Gujarat chief minister then. “That is a closed chapter,” said Sushil Modi.

Nitish defended the opportunist charge saying the mandate was for probity and transparency. “I tried to run the government with that and completed one-third tenure. The vote was to work. The only thing I had asked was to explain and clarify (the charges against Tejashwi). They did not have an answer. My government was for people and not for one family. Secularism is not a front for corruption,” he said.

But, this has been coming. Nitish started building a rapport with Modi when he supported the surgical strikes on the Pakistan border when the rest of the opposition had doubts. His support for the demonetisation surprised everyone. While his allies started doubting his intentions, BJP leaders thought it was meant to put pressure on Lalu. The BJP saw it as an attempt by Nitish to keep himself on the right side of the debate on corruption in order to counter Lalu.

51-Tejashwi-Yadav Taking up the baton: Tejashwi Yadav seems to have consolidated his position as Lalu Prasad’s successor | PTI

Nitish was proved right when the results of the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh elections came out in March. The Congress and the Samajwadi Party went to the polls decrying the demonetisation. But the BJP swept the state, as people bought Modi’s argument that it was good in the long term.

Bihar had been a blot on the impressive track record of Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. Despite the best efforts, they had lost it to the Grand Alliance in November 2015. They needed to regain it.

When Nitish toned down his opposition to Modi, the BJP sensed an opportunity. In January, Modi went to Patna to participate in the 350th birth day celebrations of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru. He praised Nitish’s prohibition drive. The bonhomie between the two was visible. And the BJP played it up.

Nitish was shrewd enough to see the BJP’s resurgence in the state. As his attempts to beef up opposition unity did not work out, he sounded a note of caution—“Why should the BJP set the agenda? Why not Rahul Gandhi set the agenda?” he said in February in Delhi, when he attended the launch of a book written by former finance minister P. Chidambaram. He repeated the warning in Patna in July. “As we had said earlier, the Congress is a big party and we need to set an alternative agenda,” he said at a news conference.

For now, Nitish’s move appears to have been accepted by his party’s legislators, as no one wants fresh elections. Senior leader Sharad Yadav, Rajya Sabha member Ali Anwar and the party’s Kerala unit voiced disagreement. “I don’t agree with the decision in Bihar, it is unfortunate,” said Sharad Yadav. “The mandate by the people was not for this.”

With Nitish turning his coat, the entire Hindi heartland has turned saffron. The BJP or its allies are in power in 22 out of 32 legislative assemblies in the country. The party has a realistic chance to retain power in Gujarat and win back Himachal Pradesh, which are going to the polls in December.

The BJP is the biggest gainer of the political drama in Bihar. Nitish, however, has taken a calculated risk. Though he is set to retain his post till 2020, he might find himself in a much-changed situation then under the Modi-Shah dominance. In fact, the BJP is planning to call a meeting of its ministers and tell them the dos and don’ts, so that they can avoid making mistakes and focus on the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The JD(U) and the BJP tried to address the caste equations while setting up the cabinet. The sulking allies, like Jitan Ram Manjhi, have been assured rehabilitation in the next expansion. The equation of dalits, mahadalits and OBCs with upper castes had helped the JD(U) and the BJP win elections in the past.

The BJP also stands to gain from its alliance with Nitish in the upcoming Gujarat polls. Nitish is from the Kurmi community, which has close ties with Patidars in Gujarat. The powerful Patidars have been demanding job reservation for the community, putting the BJP in a fix. However, an ambitious BJP might spell trouble for Nitish in 2020, when it is likely to demand a major share of seats in the Bihar assembly elections. If it emerges the single largest party, it would claim the chief minister’s post, just like it did in Maharashtra.

Nitish has played his cards well. But the tag of opportunism is likely to stick. And, if the BJP tries to make a government in the state on its own the next time, he will need new allies, once again.

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