Nitish Kumar
It is felt that people no longer view Nitish Kumar as ‘sushasan babu’ (good administrator), but as another power hungry leader. File photo

Nitish in firefighting mode as internal fissures threaten Mahagathbandhan

RJD and JD(U) leaders worry that electorally the alliance may collapse due to the weight of its own contradictions even as the BJP builds on its strengths

Fragile egos, unbridled ambitions, past political conflicts and current electoral constraints have again set Bihar’s Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) government on a turbulent trajectory. Six months after Nitish Kumar dumped the BJP and revived his Janata Dal-United’s alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress, the Bihar Chief Minister and his deputy, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, are both desperately trying to douse multiple fires within their respective parties.

The immediate challenge for Nitish Kumar has come from his party’s parliamentary board chief Upendra Kushwaha, who is reportedly upset with the Chief Minister for projecting Tejashwi and not him as the coalition’s chief ministerial face for the 2025 assembly polls. Kushwaha is reportedly mulling an exit strategy from the JD(U) again – he had quit the party in 2006, returned to it in 2010 and walked out again in 2013, presumably at the behest of the BJP.

The Federal Exclusive | A divided opposition can never defeat BJP in 2024: Nitish Kumar

Kushwaha has been baiting Nitish Kumar to act against him, challenging the JD(U) boss to make public details of the “deal” he struck with the RJD in August 2022 when the Grand Alliance was revived. Nitish Kumar, on his part, has said Kushwaha is “free to go anywhere” he chooses, indicating that the JD(U) is in no hurry to act against its rogue leader.

Kushwaha affair

However, Kushwaha’s retort of not obliging the Chief Minister without getting a share of the “ancestral property” (read political dividends from the JD-U with which Kushwaha had merged his Rashtriya Lok Samata Party in March 2021) has put Kumar in a spot of bother.

If tackling Kushwaha, who has been uneasy with the revival of JD(U)-RJD Mahagathbandhan from the start, is a problem for Nitish Kumar to solve on his own, the Chief Minister and his deputy have also been besieged by a slew of shared challenges on account of motormouth colleagues and a hangover of past political rivalry between their two parties.

The latest examples of this was the public sparring between leaders of the two parties over Bihar Education Minister and RJD leader Chandra Shekhar’s controversial comments about the Ramcharitmanas and RJD MLA Sudhakar Singh’s likening of the Chief Minister with Shikhandi (pejorative reference to a transgender).

United in public

Officially, both Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi have put on a brave front, dismissing any rift within their alliance and asserting repeatedly that the Mahagathbandhan is not only united but also geared up to defeat the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha.

Multiple leaders in the two parties that The Federal spoke to claimed that though there was no immediate threat to the stability of the ruling alliance, there were a number of unresolved issues between the JD(U) and the RJD that Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi need to iron out at a war footing if they hope to see their coalition besting the BJP in next year’s Lok Sabha polls.

For now, both Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi have decided to read the riot act to their party colleagues, firmly telling them to not make public statements attacking the RJD and JD(U) leaderships respectively.

Also read: ‘Jungle Raj’ image comes back to haunt Nitish as BJP sharpens its claws

RJD spokesperson Mrityunjay Tiwari told The Federal: “Unnecessary and unwarranted statements that weaken the Mahagathbandhan have to be avoided and this has been communicated by the RJD and JD(U) leadership to members of their respective parties… Nitish Kumar, Lalan Singh (JD-U chief Rajiv Ranjan Singh) and Tejashwi have all said that anyone making controversial comments on social and religious issues or statements against leaders of the alliance is directly working for the BJP and this will not be tolerated.”

Real crisis

Sources in the two parties – the Congress, which is the third constituent of the coalition, is an outlier in the Grand Alliance and has maintained radio silence on the war of words between the two senior allies – concede that these discordant notes cannot be dismissed as disgruntled individuals airing their disappointment.

“There are individuals, like Kushwaha and Sudhakar Singh, in both parties who are unhappy with the alliance for different reasons but the root cause of their grievances is in the complications of running this alliance,” a senior JD(U) leader told The Federal.

Also read | I will ‘rather die’ than join hands with BJP again: Nitish Kumar

A close aide of Tejashwi said: “There is still a wide trust deficit between Nitish and Tejashwi, which has been compounded further by the bad blood between grassroots workers of the two parties and a complicated electoral arithmetic… signs of these problems have been evident for months now and had come to the fore in the Kurhani (assembly) by-election last month which the BJP managed to win by a slender margin (of 3,632 votes) because at the ground level, we failed to function like an electoral alliance.”

The by-election on Muzzaffarpur’s Kurhani seat was necessitated by the disqualification of RJD’s Anil Sahni, the sitting MLA, because of his conviction in a corruption case. Though Sahni had narrowly won the seat for the RJD in the 2020 assembly polls, Tejashwi had agreed to Nitish Kumar’s repeated pleas of allowing a JD(U) candidate to contest from Kurhani.

Losing Kurhani

Nitish Kumar chose Manoj Kushwaha as the JD(U) candidate for Kurhani. Manoj, as the joint Grand Alliance candidate, had not only lost the seat to BJP’s Kedar Gupta in 2015 (it was the BJP’s first ever win in Kurhani) by over 11,000 votes but was also widely unpopular among the strong RJD vote base in the constituency. Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi jointly campaigned for Kushwaha, and Tejashwi repeatedly urged RJD workers to forgive the candidate’s past mistakes. All this proved futile as Gupta won the seat again.

“Kurhani was a prime example of the electoral complications in the Grand Alliance because the distrust between RJD and JD(U) workers at the grassroots still runs deep despite Kumar and Tejashwi repeatedly projecting an image of unity and mutual admiration… Many RJD leaders and workers believe Nitish Kumar cannot be trusted and they have problems with JD(U) leaders at the constituency level because for 20 years the two parties fought against each other… The Kurhani seat used to switch between RJD and JD(U) in each election until Manoj Kushwaha lost it to the BJP; obviously the electoral benefit of these differences will be reaped by the BJP,” said a senior RJD lawmaker.

Also read: With eye on 2024, Nitish struggles to retain ‘Sushasan Babu’ image

Within the Grand Alliance, several leaders also hold the view that the BJP is steadily gaining strength in Bihar at the expense of the JD(U). “Nitish Kumar may have held on to his CM chair by switching alliance partners (BJP between 2005 and 2014, RJD from February 2015 to July 2017, BJP again from July 2017 to August 2022 and then returning again to the Grand Alliance) but his public image has taken a beating… People no longer view him as ‘sushasan babu’ (good administrator) but as another power hungry leader,” explained a JD(U) leader.

The leader added: “The BJP has been tapping into the JD(U) vote bank, particularly Kurmis and Kushwahas, which traditionally don’t get along with the RJD’s Muslim-Yadav vote bank.”

BJP strategy

On paper, the Mahagathbandhan is a formidable electoral entity because of the clout its primary constituents collectively enjoy among the sizeable caste/community vote banks of Yadavs (about 15 percent), Muslims (about 17 percent), Kushwahas (about 8 percent), Kurmis (about 4 percent) and extremely backward communities such as Musahars and Dusadhs (collectively about 6 percent). Add to this the nearly 4 percent captive vote share of the Left Parties, primarily the CPI-ML which currently extends outside support to the Nitish Kumar-led government in Bihar and the Congress’s vote share that typically fluctuates between 6 and 10 percent in the state.

The first Mahagathbandhan experiment of the 2015 Bihar assembly polls had also given its proponents ample empirical evidence to claim that the coming together of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and the RJD of Lalu Yadav and Tejashwi would yield an alliance that the BJP will find impossible to defeat. Though the Left Parties were not part of the Grand Alliance then, the coalition had bagged a 41.9 percent vote share to win an absolute majority of 178 seats in the 243 member Bihar assembly.

The BJP, which had contested that election in alliance with other caste-based parties such as the late Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha and Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP managed to get the highest individual vote share of 24.4 percent (higher that the RJD’s 18.4 percent and the JD-U’s 16.8 percent) but the NDA collectively registered a vote share of 34.1 percent that gave it just 58 seats. The Left Parties, with a near 4 percent vote share among them, won 3 seats (all CPI-ML candidates).

However, Nitish Kumar’s elastic conscience that saw him hopping in and out of the NDA and the Grand Alliance over the subsequent eight years swiftly eroded his personal credibility and that of his JD(U) among voters. Meanwhile, the BJP shrewdly increased its footprint into erstwhile JD(U) strongholds with a cocktail of Machiavellian political manoeuvres, aggressive Hindutva and centrally-sponsored largesse aimed at providing food security and other reliefs to the EBCs (economically backwards classes) and MBCs (most backward classes) that constitute the traditional vote bank of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U).

Nitish’s failures

A key aide of the CM told The Federal Kumar has been unable to pre-empt manoeuvres employed by the BJP to hollow out the JD(U). “Be it Upendra Kushwaha’s dissent now or (former Union minister) RCP Singh’s rebellion of last year, it is clear that these are being engineered by the BJP. The BJP wants to usurp our political space so it only has one electoral rival, the RJD, to compete against in Bihar. It had started rolling out this strategy during the 2020 assembly polls though the JD(U) was then part of the NDA… The decision of Chirag Paswan to field LJP candidates against JD(U) candidates was the BJP’s handiwork… With the Lok Sabha polls a year away, the BJP is moving to the next level of its strategy by backing caste leaders like Kushwaha to rebel,” the aide alleged.

Another JD(U) leader said Nitish Kumar’s hold on the Kurmi and Kushwaha vote banks – colloquially called the Luv-Kush combination in Bihar – that together constitute nearly 12 percent of the electorate has been slipping. The alleged attempts by the BJP to win over Upendra Kushwaha to its side again after successfully forcing Nitish Kumar to oust RCP Singh, a Kurmi leader once seen as the Chief Minister’s right-hand man, is also ostensibly based on the saffron party’s electoral calculation of salami slicing the JD(U) by plummeting its perception among Kumar’s core Kurmi-Kushwaha voters.

Not all of the Grand Alliance’s problems, say sources, can be attributed to the BJP or past acrimony between the RJD and the JD(U). “Nitish Kumar needs to learn how to share power,” said a senior RJD Minister, alleging that though the RJD is the senior partner in the alliance with 74 MLAs against 43 of the JD(U), the party practically has no say in matters of governance.

Simmering issues

“Nitish Kumar runs the government through a coterie of bureaucrats and this has made him very unpopular not just with RJD representatives in the government but also members of the JD(U) because they are all at the mercy of these bureaucrats… RJD ministers, with the exception of Tejashwi, don’t even have a say in the appointment of officials under their direct charge,” the Minister said.

According to him, Nitish Kumar recently approved the appointment of PK Shahi as the Advocate General (Shahi had also served in this capacity during Nitish Kumar’s tenure from 2005 to 2010), without even discussing his name with RJD MLA and Law Minister Shamim Ahmad.

Nitish Kumar has also been reportedly sitting over a slew of policy recommendations that Tejaswhi wanted the government to fast track – including recruitment in various departments – as these were part of the RJD’s poll manifesto of 2020. Though publicly, the Chief Minister and his deputy lavish praise on each other, sources close to Tejashwi say has been getting increasingly frustrated at not being able to get any work done because of Nitish Kumar’s procrastination.

Despite these growing chinks in the Grand Alliance, those close to Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi insist that the possibility of the Chief Minister doing yet another somersault to return to the NDA’s fold ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls is unlikely as he stands to lose whatever little political heft he has left. What has been worrying leaders of the two parties though is that electorally the alliance may collapse due to the weight of its own contradictions with or without Nitish Kumar doing another volte face.

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