Does Nitish’s meeting with Lalu kin hint at churn in Bihar politics?

Speculations are rife after Bihar CM and JD (U) supremo Nitish Kumar met the family members of RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav twice within a short span of a week on the sidelines of the Iftar party in the month of April.

Two meetings between the JD (U) supremo Nitish Kumar and the family members of Lalu Prasad Yadav within a short span of a week on the sidelines of the Iftar Party, first on April 22 and the second on April 28, also coinciding with the grant of bail to Lalu Prasad Yadav in a fodder scam case, have been instrumental in giving rise to multiple political speculations of varied types. Different political circles in and outside Bihar are decoding the message of these two meetings according to their own convenience. Given the past behaviour of over two decades of the JD (U) supremo, it is hard to predict which way the political wind will blow. Undoubtedly, respective major political players – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Janata Dal (United) or JD (U) and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)  – have either worked out are working on their respective strategies to win the ongoing chess game of Bihar politics.

BJP’s Stratagem

It has been a long-term strategy of the BJP to administer Bihar of its own, which till now has been part of a coalition government in partnership with JD (U) led by chief minister Nitish Kumar since 2005, with the exception of 18 months when Nitish Kumar partnered with RJD after the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections and then again joined hands with the BJP to be saddled into power.  Like other BJP-ruled states, the BJP is keen to have full sway over the reins of power in Bihar to implement its agenda; nevertheless, on many occasions, Nitish Kumar has opposed some of the moves of the BJP, especially the application of Uniform Civil Code (UCC).

The JD (U) under the leadership of Nitish Kumar has been demanding a caste-based census by arguing that enumeration of the backward castes is the key to the effective implementation of welfare schemes. However, the BJP is reluctant to concede to this demand of JD (U) and the Modi government’s affidavit in the Supreme Court with regard to the non-feasibility of caste census in 2021 has seemingly not gone well with the JD (U) leadership.

Recent media reports are rife with speculations with regard to the BJP strategy of exerting full control over Bihar by moving Nitish Kumar out of Patna to Delhi either as a presidential candidate of the NDA for the ensuing election of the President of India, or for the post of Vice President of India which is also due for election, or as a Member of Rajya Sabha. Acceptance of either of the three options by Nitish Kumar entails the potential of paving way for the BJP to easily manage the affairs in Bihar according to its choice.

Despite frequent denials by JD (U) spokespersons of Nitish Kumar shifting to Delhi for a top constitutional slot, many senior BJP leaders in Patna have seemingly not stopped from quietly indulging in political posturing. The name of Union minister of state for home affairs Nityanand Rai is being touted as being the BJP’s probable chief ministerial candidate in the eventuality of Nitish Kumar moving out of Bihar prior to the 2025 Assembly polls. Other potential chief ministerial faces in Bihar BJP camp are Rajya Sabha MP and former Bihar deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi and the firebrand Union minister Giriraj Singh who has been deftly displaying his Hindutva credentials.

Nevertheless, political observers in Patna opine that the forthcoming cabinet expansion is likely to unveil the future strategy of the BJP, especially if it replaces one of its two deputy CMs or both. Induction of all three MLAs of Vikassheel Insan Party into the BJP has raised the party’s strength to 77 MLAs as well as bolstered the party’s morale. Given the JD (U)’s strength of 45 MLAs, the BJP seems in a commanding position to step up its pressure on the junior ally. However, the loss of the Bochaha by-poll is said to have sent strong political signals within the Bihar BJP with regard to the possible split in EBC votes and the distancing of a section of upper caste votes from the party.

Nitish Kumar’s Adeptness

The BJP commands the mastery over putting its rivals or immediate contenders on the horns of dilemma through the blitzkrieg of its propaganda machinery. Having emerged as the single largest party in the state of Bihar, the BJP leadership is sending signals to Nitish Kumar to be moved out of Bihar to Delhi either as a candidate of the BJP for presidential polls or to be named as the next Vice-President of India or a seat in Rajya Sabha. Nevertheless, the BJP may not like to name Nitish Kumar as its presidential candidate because it may not suit the party to implement its agenda under the presidency of Nitish Kumar in view of the sharp differences between the BJP and Nitish Kumar on issues like Uniform Civil Code, CAA-NRC, Population Control, and the caste-based census, etc.

Even the offer of the office of vice-president may not lure Nitish Kumar because he may not like to be dictated by the terms of the ruling dispensation, and with regard to the offer of Rajya Sabha membership, one fails to understand why Nitish Kumar should feel obliged to the BJP when his own party commands enough numbers to send him to Rajya Sabha. Moreover, Nitish Kumar has recently told media persons that he had no personal interest in going to the Upper House as the people of Bihar have mandated him to power in Bihar and he had a lot of work to do in the state.

Various kinds of speculations have cropped up in the aftermath of Nitish Kumar’s participation in the Iftar Party of April 22 and April 28 and his meetings with RJD leaders there; nonetheless, on his part, he has been maintaining studied silence and not reacting to comments of leaders from the BJP as well as to counter-comments from his own party leaders. Many Bihar observers feel that irrespective of having emerged as the largest party and the enthusiasm of a section of the Bihar BJP to see the party attain electoral self-sufficiency in the state, the road to such a success is prone to be a direly uphill climb for the BJP sans Nitish.  These observers also argue that the BJP can ill-afford a confrontation with Nitish Kumar and the former will have to adopt an accommodative approach keeping in view the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar.

The JD (U) cannot be easily wished away either by the BJP or RJD because it continues to comprise the third significant axis in Bihar’s triangular politics. According to some experts, Nitish’s vote base is numerically significant because it comprises Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), Mahadalits (most marginalised among Scheduled Castes), and caste-neutral women, and three sections constitute over 45 per cent of the Bihar electorate and Nitish is reported to garner the largest chunk of his votes from these sections. In Bihar’s triangular politics dominated by the BJP, the JD (U), and the RJD, as and when two join hands they are at the helm. Thus, Nitish is valuable for both the BJP and RJD because of his social grouping which commands over 40 per cent of votes, often determining the poll winner. One expert has opined that in the aftermath of the Bochaha drubbing, the BJP is bound to closer to Nitish Kumar than before.

What Lies Ahead?

Uncertainty is the hallmark of politics like cricket, and anything can happen anytime in politics.

The victory of the RJD at the Bochaha by-polls may be a morale booster for it where its candidate defeated the BJP candidate by a margin of over 36, 500 votes. Bochaha has proved to be· a shocker for the BJP. And this defeat still continues to rile the BJP. Amidst these developments, Nitish Kumar’s participation in the Iftar Party hosted by the RJD on April 22, not only stirred the hornet’s nest in Bihar’s politics but also stoked fire at a time when there is a buzz of a reported rift in the NDA in Bihar. According to media reports, JD (U) and the BJP are at loggerheads on plenty of issues like caste-based census, liquor ban, and law and order situation in the state. A section of the Bihar BJP has expressed serious concern over the huge debacle not just in Bochaha but also in the Legislative Council election for 24 seats from urban local bodies, wherein both JD (U) and the BJP together ended up losing 10 of their seats, while the RJD was the biggest gainer. What happens in the ensuing weeks in Bihar will be worth watching.