Nitish keeps playing ‘big brother’ as BJP faces leadership vacuum

JD-U has kept major departments, including home, with itself even as it has persuaded BJP to agree to equal distribution of 12 governor quota MLC seats

Nitish Kumar
The BJP camp is disgruntled with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar for hogging the limelight for COVID measures taken by the government. Photo: PTI

Bihar Chief Minister and senior JD-U leader Nitish Kumar emerged from the fiercely contested last year’s assembly election virtually battered but unbowed. Even after his party slipped to the third position with 43 seats, Nitish is leaving no room for BJP to maneuver. The BJP bagged 74 seats in the election, 31 more than the JD-U tally.

The BJP kept its pre-poll promise by accepting Nitish as CM even as his baiters predicted that BJP would take the command from him. But Nitish proved them wrong as he continued to wield his ‘big brother’ position.

Recently, Nitish also gained electorally when Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) of former union minister Upendra Kuswaha merged with his party with the JD-U. It will help him to consolidate Lav (Kurmi)-Kush (Koeri) caste combination, comprising nearly six percent of votes, in favour of his party. It will only create hurdles for the BJP’s plan to make inroads into this social group.

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Political analysts, however, believe that Nitish will find it difficult to remain in the number one slot all the time in the next five years. The BJP has sensed that Nitish’s best days are already over and that it has all the reasons to step in, they contend.

Nitish’s performance

The 69-year-old Nitish was sworn in as CM last November for possibly his last term. In the beginning, his priority has been to re-infuse energy into his party ranks after an unimpressive performance in the assembly election. He held a series of meetings with his party workers and leaders, and also with unsuccessful party candidates, to find out the reasons for the setbacks.

Nitish later shifted his attention to maintaining his preeminent position in the Bihar NDA despite his party’s lacklustre performance in the election. He found this task not as hard because the BJP has no leader of his stature in the state.

BJP’s moves on the political chessboard have also not been less interesting as it shifted former deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi, considered one of the closest aides of Nitish, to New Delhi as a Rajya Sabha member. In another move, it brought party spokesperson and former Union minister Syed Shahnawaz Hussain to Bihar. Initially it was thought that it was part of BJP leadership’s game plan to thwart Nitish’s attempt to regain his big brother position. But Shahnawaz Hussain, once considered a blue-eyed boy of BJP patriarch Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has exhibited no sign of it so far. Shahnawaz has been given the crucial portfolio of the industry department and since then, he has largely confined himself to his beat.

The BJP is faced with a paradox — even though it has grown much electorally, it has no leader who could be the face of the party in the state. The recent unseemly behaviour by BJP minister Samrat Chaudhary against assembly speaker Vijay Kumar Sinha, himself a BJP MLA, in the assembly, shows how BJP is facing the leadership crisis, particularly after the departure of Sushil Modi from the state’s political scene.

Also read: Back from wilderness? Shahnawaz of BJP among 17 inducted in Bihar cabinet

The saffron party has made its two leaders, Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi, deputy chief ministers, but they lack the requisite stature to challenge the leadership of Nitish. Some call it BJP’s stopgap arrangement before it makes a big move such as asking Nitish to join the Union cabinet or offering him something even bigger.

But for now, BJP’s “go slow” approach gives Nitish a leeway to recalibrate his political strategy.

Whatever lies ahead of Nitish, it is evident that he has smartly made BJP play second fiddle to his party. The JD-U has kept major departments, including home, with itself even as it has persuaded BJP to agree to equal distribution of 12 governor quota MLC seats. The JD-U has also successfully managed to secure the post of deputy speaker of Bihar assembly after the Speaker post had gone to the BJP quota.

JD-U’s challenge from smaller allies

The ruling NDA’s two smaller allies, the Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) of former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi and Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) of Mukesh Sahni, have occasionally proved irritants for Nitish, but he handled such situations.

After the BJP and JD-U equally shared governor quota MLC seats, both leaders were found sulking for denial of one seat each to them, but Nitish maintained stoic silence over it. Earlier too, Manjhi had demanded one more ministerial berth, but Nitish kept Manjhi in good humour even without conceding his demand.

Political observers said that even if either the HAM or VIP withdraws support from the Nitish government, the NDA will be left with 123 MLAs, as Nitish commands the support of 127 MLAs. In addition to 125 MLAs from BJP, the JD-U, HAM and VIP, the lone BSP MLA had joined the JD-U later while an Independent MLA has also extended his support to the Nitish government.

The HAM and VIP have four members each in the 243-member state assembly. Support of 122 MLAs is needed for the survival of the government. Political analysts say there is no guarantee that all eight MLAs of these two parties will agree to withdraw their support from the Nitish government en bloc.

The HAM and VIP keep flexing their muscles only to extract advantage from the ruling alliance, as this time these parties want that their leaders should be appointed chairpersons of various boards and corporations.

Tejashwi’s aggressive posture

Nitish is facing a tough challenge from the leader of Opposition in the state assembly Tejashwi Yadav, as his aggressive posturing has started resonating across the state. His main target is Nitish and not BJP as he does not want the JD-U leader to win back the support of aggrieved people after anti-incumbency mood against him came to the fore during the assembly election.

Also read: RJD demands high-level probe into irregularities in COVID testing in Bihar

Even during the just concluded budget session of the state assembly,  Tejashwi missed no opportunity to launch a scathing attack on Nitish and cornered the government with facts and figures. Now, Tejashwi has to keep the momentum to give more troubles to Nitish and his government.

Bihar Special Armed Police Bill

Tejashwi along with other opposition leaders vehemently protested against the contentious Bihar Special Armed Police Bill inside the state assembly. The speaker even called police personnel to assist marshals in ousting the protesting opposition MLAs when they laid a siege to his chamber. In the process, opposition squandered away a good opportunity to corner the government.

The opposition has called the bill a “black” legislation, taking strong exception to provisions that empower the Special Armed Police, previously known as the Bihar Military Police, to conduct searches and arrests without producing a warrant.

Had there been a discussion in the House, the Opposition could have cornered the government on this Bill in a more meaningful way. It could have also helped build public opinion against the bill.

A former state director general of police on the condition of anonymity said there are certain grey areas in the Bill and the government could have considered them before introducing them in the assembly.

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