For how long will Nitish Kumar put up with the NDA alliance?

The whole trouble started after the JD-U was offered a lone berth in the Narendra Modi cabinet despite winning so many seats. Photo: PTI

There is hardly any previous instance of a party or a coalition facing an uncertain future barely about a fortnight after posting a resounding win over its rivals. The ruling NDA in Bihar looks to be a perfect example of this.

Just see the paradox: Last fortnight, the main topic of discussion in the political circles was that how many ministerial berths the JD-U will get in the Narendra Modi government when Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s party emerged victorious on 16 of the 17 Lok Sabha seats it had contested. Now, the debate is how long the chief minister will stay with the NDA?

The whole trouble started after the JD-U which is headed by Nitish Kumar was offered a lone berth in the Narendra Modi cabinet despite winning so many seats. Kumar reacted by promptly rejecting the offer. The message was loud and clear for the BJP.

On retaliation mode

But what happened next looked even more serious. Barely 48 hours later, the chief minister “retaliated” by inducting eight ministers in his cabinet—all from the JD-U, while denying a berth to any BJP leader during the Sunday cabinet expansion. The rift between the two NDA partners widened further when the BJP and the JD-U skipped the Iftar party hosted by each other on Sunday evening.

Kumar’s grudge is not that his party was offered only one berth; rather the main reason of his annoyance is the way the JD-U was treated on par with smaller NDA allies like the Republic Party of India (RPI), Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the LJP which too were offered one berth in the Modi cabinet despite winning one, two and six seats respectively. “The BJP will have to differentiate between Ramdas Athawale’s RPI and the JD-U,” JD-U’s general secretary KC Tyagi has commented, indicating the bitterness in the two NDA partners.

What, though, has alarmed the JD-U is the reports that by offering one seat to the party the BJP is tactfully trying to get rid of Kumar after finding that Lalu Prasad no more a challenge for the party. The RJD-led Grand Alliance was able to win only one seat of Bihar’s total 40 in the just-held Lok Sabha polls. What was strange is that the RJD itself failed to open its account despite stitching a powerful alliance with five political parties. The BJP believes all this happened due to the ‘Narendra Modi effect’ and hence the time is ripe to install its own chief minister in Bihar.

“Nitish Kumar has only little time left to look for the solution. It looks like the BJP is trying to get rid of Nitish Kumar after marginalising Lalu Prasad. The BJP can’t tolerate the man still opposing Article 370, Uniform Civil Code and Citizenship bill,” commented political expert Premkumar Mani who once worked with Kumar.

Another political expert Kanhaiya Bhelari too has expressed similar apprehension. “The BJP is slowly working on the strategy to reach West Bengal via Bihar. It already is back in Delhi saddle, conquered Uttar Pradesh and has made deep inroads into West Bengal as indicated by the LS poll outcome. So, the next target for the BJP is very obviously Bihar,” explained Bhelari.

Last strands of hope

A good sign for the chief minister is that the RJD too is showing flexibility to accept Kumar in the Grand Alliance after initial stubbornness. On Monday, it formally extended hands of friendship when a senior RJD leader and former Union minister Raghvansh Prasad Singh, a close aid of RJD president Lalu Prasad, offered the chief minister to return to the opposition Grand Alliance. Although it is not known how the chief minister responds to this offer, but those aware with Kumar’s style of functioning know that he has never forgiven his enemies in the past—be it Ram Vilas Paswan, Narendra Modi or Lalu Prasad at different points of time.

Firstly, he avenged Paswan by not including his fellow Dusadh (Paswan) caste men under the Mahadalit category although the remaining 21 castes were included. The prime reason behind it was said to be Paswan’s denial to lend his party support in forming Nitish Kumar government in the March 2005 Assembly elections when it threw a fractured mandate. This caste was eventually included in the Mahadalit category well nine months after the chief minister returned to the NDA in July 2017.

Kumar treated the BJP with the same vengeance when it carried an advertisement in the local daily in 2010 showing the Bihar chief minister clasping hands with Modi, the then chief minister of Gujarat. The angry chief minister not only cancelled the dinner hosted in honour of the visiting BJP dignitaries who had reached Patna to attend the party’s national executive meeting but also returned Rs5 crore cheque donated by the then Gujarat government for the victims of 2008 Kosi disaster. In 2013, he finally broke alliance with the BJP after Modi was projected as NDA’s prime ministerial face.

The JD-U leader didn’t spare the RJD president Lalu Prasad either. After the humiliating defeat in 2014 LS polls, Kumar had joined hands with Prasad, setting aside his two-decade-old political rivalry. Together they campaigned and won the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar with thumping majority but barely two years later he broke alliance with the RJD and returned to the BJP camp. According to the JD-U insiders, Kumar was angry at the RJD president allegedly interfering into the functioning of his government. Given those past records, the political experts say Kumar may take such “hard decisions” in future.

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