In five months, Bihar will go to the polls and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar will fight for his political career. And, unlike in 2005 and 2010, there is no BJP to prop him up as the state's tallest leader.
In the last two assembly elections, the BJP had partnered with Nitish's Janata Dal (United) to keep Lalu Prasad and his Rashtriya Janata Dal from coming to power. Since Nitish did not belong to a dominant caste that could vote him to power, the BJP brought to him upper caste votes.
Last year, though, he took a gamble. He severed ties with the BJP before the Lok Sabha election, hoping that his performance as chief minister would help him counter the Modi wave. But he was in for a rude shock. The JD(U) managed to win only two seats, while the RJD won four. Lalu's Muslim-Yadav vote base stayed intact, while Nitish's 'social engineering' went for a toss.
Survival instinct has made him the principal mover in the planned merger of the Janata parivar. It was Nitish who brought together Lalu and Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose Samajwadi Party had also done badly in the Lok Sabha polls in Uttar Pradesh. Interestingly, Lalu and Mulayam, one-time rivals, are now relatives. Raj Lakshmi, Lalu's youngest daughter, is married to Tej Pratap Singh, Mulayam's grandnephew and Samajwadi MP.
Despite the enthusiasm shown by Nitish, Lalu and Mulayam to join hands, a unified Janata party is yet to become a reality. In fact, there have been opposition from several quarters against the move. “The SP stands to lose its identity built over two decades,” said a party source. “The Janata parivar experiment would cause confusion in the mind of the electorate.”
SP general secretary Ram Gopal Yadav said the immediate concern of his party was to trump the BJP in the 2017 assembly election in UP, and that the proposed merger could not take effect before the Bihar election. “We will be signing our death warrant if it does so,” he said.
Yadav suggested that the JD(U) and the RJD contest the election as allies. While Lalu has agreed to it, the suggestion seems to have miffed Nitish. RJD leaders have been pressuring Lalu to negotiate sharing of seats on the basis of performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. It means that, in case of a pre-poll tie-up with the JD(U), the RJD would stake a claim to a lion's share of 243 assembly seats in Bihar.
“It was the Lok Sabha election that prompted the leaders to come together and take on the BJP,” said an RJD leader. According to him, it is “wrong on the part of Nitish to think of becoming an equal partner in the alliance, as his candidates had failed to come even second in most Lok Sabha seats.”
Sources say Nitish wants to share seats on the basis of performance in the previous assembly election. But RJD leaders point out that he had won the election with the help of the BJP. “It is only logical to go with the Lok Sabha results. As per analysis of the results at the assembly level, the RJD should contest not less than 135 seats,” said a party leader.
Mulayam and Lalu are reportedly wary of Nitish striking a deal with the BJP in case of a hung assembly in Bihar. “Nitish has been frequenting New Delhi and having dinner with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley,” said an SP leader. “He has also praised Modi. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was conferred Bharat Ratna at his residence, the only Janata leader present was Sharad Yadav of the JD(U).”
JD(U) leaders, however, are hopeful of ironing out the differences before the Bihar polls. “We still have time,” said Sharad Yadav. “We will work towards achieving our goal of having one party.”