NITISH KUMAR HAS EVENTUALLY LOST THE battle that he waged against Narendra Modi by dumping the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2013. The BJP defeated the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), headed by Nitish Kumar, in the 2014 general election in Bihar, but Nitish Kumar, in company with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress, avenged that defeat in 2015. The Prime Minister now has made up for that loss by “guiding” Nitish Kumar to lead a coup against the 2015 mandate and installing him as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Chief Minister.
The dramatic collapse of the JD(U)-RJD-Congress “grand alliance” is rooted in Nitish Kumar’s inability to increase his acceptance among voters vis-a-vis a “discredited” Lalu Prasad’s success in getting the RJD to emerge as the single-largest party in the Assembly after the 2015 Assembly election and, subsequently, his son Tejashwi Prasad Yadav’s fast rise as an acceptable leader in the RJD and its support base.
In fact, at the closed-door meeting of JD(U) office-bearers that Nitish Kumar convened after the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) raided establishments belonging to Lalu Prasad’s family and lodged a first information report (FIR) against his deputy, Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, among others, on July 5, Bijendra Yadav, the Energy Minister and MLA from Supaul, said: “We should have a realistic assessment of our strength. Both of us [the RJD and the JD(U)] contested equal number of seats—101 each to be exact—in 2015. But the RJD won 80 against the JD(U)’s 71. There is no reason for us to go by the CBI charges against Tejashwi. We had entered into an alliance with Lalu Prasad after he was convicted in a fodder scam case and people have mandated our alliance.” Bijendra Yadav had touched a raw nerve. But he was absolutely correct in pointing out the hard reality of the JD(U)’s strength against the RJD’s in the Assembly.
Lalu Prasad accepted Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister as per his prior commitment despite the JD(U) ending up second in the pecking order, but appropriated his political share by making Tejashwi Prasad Yadav Deputy Chief Minister and getting 12 ministerial berths, including the Road Construction Ministry for Tejashwi Prasad Yadav and the Health Ministry for Tej Pratap Yadav, his elder son. The Congress, a partner in the alliance with 27 seats, the Left, and all the “secular” parties across the country celebrated the 2015 Bihar results as a big setback for the resurgent saffron politics of the BJP. But Nitish Kumar—a deft player of power—got the measure of his strength then itself. He managed to conceal his melancholy successfully in the celebratory atmosphere.
“But a calm operator, he employed his favoured weapons—tact, guile and camouflage—to nail Lalu Prasad as the perception sank in that it was Lalu Prasad’s charisma and larger mass base that had halted the BJP’s forward march in Bihar,” said Shivanand Tiwari, a former JD(U) MP who is close to Lalu Prasad now. Significantly, when the CBI launched its crackdown on Lalu Prasad’s establishments, Nitish Kumar preferred to stay in Rajgir, his hometown, with R.C. P. Singh, his trusted aide and MP, for nearly a week. Singh is believed to be the only person in the JD(U) who is privy to Nitish Kumar’s manoeuvres. The only statement that Singh gave while staying with Nitish Kumar was: “Nitish Kumar has not joined politics to earn wealth. He is in politics to build society and [the] State. The JD(U) is not a party to seal and promote corrupt practices.”
Nitish Kumar would have liked the JD(U) to have the largest number of seats in the Assembly to justify his position as Chief Minister. It did not happen. What upset him more was Tejashwi Prasad Yadav’s growing acceptance in the party’s rank and file and also among the core mass base of the RJD. People screamed “ Hamara neta kaisa ho, Tejashwi Yadav jaisa ho ” (How should our leader be? He should be like Tejashwi Yadav) in gleeful chorus whenever Tejashwi Prasad Yadav went to Raghopur. The former cricketer-turned-young leader performed reasonably well as a Minister. Political circles in Bihar were agog with talk that the RJD would again emerge as the largest party in 2020 and Lalu Prasad would then push his son—already experienced in governance—as the Chief Minister. Not to speak of his prime ministerial ambitions, Nitish Kumar would have found it hard to come back as the Chief Minister after 2020.
It was when Nitish Kumar strongly backed Modi’s demonetisation initiative—against which the Left and the Congress launched agitations and which former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described as colossal mismanagement—that the grand alliance partners, the media and almost all the “secular” parties began noticing Nitish Kumar’s softening stand towards Modi. While supporting demonetisation, Nitish Kumar asked Modi to crack down on those owning benami property as well. In hindsight, RJD leaders think that remark was targeted at Lalu Prasad.
But Nitish Kumar has been working hard behind the scenes for quite some time now. Occasional dinners with the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and “protocol” meetings with Modi were all part of the game of deception in which he eventually outsmarted Lalu Prasad and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.
When Nitish Kumar supported Modi’s Christmas Day tete-a-tete with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in December 2015—less than a month after the JD(U)-RJD-Congress “grand alliance” had come to power, he surprised Sharad Yadav, his then party chief, and Pavan K. Varma, senior leader and a former diplomat. Nitish Kumar’s statement “ Pradhan Mantri ki Pakistan yatra sahi thi ” (The Prime Minister’s Pakistan visit was right) came just after Varma had stated: “The interaction between [the] two nation heads should have happened in a structured manner.” It was the first time that Nitish Kumar had praised an action of Modi’s.
The key political move he made after becoming the Chief Minister was to replace Sharad Yadav as president of the JD(U). Insiders say that Nitish Kumar made behind-the-scenes “deals” with Modi, Jaitley and Amit Shah. He felt that Sharad Yadav might prove to be an irritant. Hence, he removed him from the president’s post, tightening his control over the party.
Nitish Kumar also hailed the Centre’s decision to go for “surgical strikes” on terrorist launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the wake of the Uri terror attack. The Congress, the RJD and the Left were largely of the opinion that such actions should not have been made public.
Nitish Kumar, of course, took on Modi while he was in the NDA. But his calculations to outclass Modi to become the party’s prime ministerial candidate went awry. He has seldom been a committed secularist. It is pertinent to remember that Nitish Kumar maintained a studied silence on the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was the Railway Minister in the A.B. Vajpayee-led government.
After dumping the BJP, he hoped to emerge as the most credible leader against Modi in the opposition. He tried to bring together six estranged members of the old Janata Parivar. He feverously campaigned in Uttar Pradesh ahead of the Assembly elections there. However, he failed to find allies. The BJP won Uttar Pradesh with a handsome majority, and installed Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister. In recent months, Nitish Kumar has been silent on the gau rakshaks’ onslaughts on Muslims in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and on the atrocities against Dalits in Saharanpur.
He supported the then Bihar Governor, Ram Nath Kovind, as a presidential candidate after talking to the allies about fielding a common candidate. In a way, he tried to provoke Lalu Prasad and the Congress into withdrawing their support to him and thus free him.
But the partners never gave him a reason to get out of the alliance. A top source in the JD(U) revealed that Nitish Kumar, along with Amit Shah, worked out an “effective” strategy to desert the “grand alliance”. The CBI lodged FIRs against Tejashwi Prasad Yadav. Nitish Kumar employed his foot soldiers—Sanjay Singh, Neeraj Kumar and Ajay Alok—to fuel the perception that Tejashwi Prasad Yadav was an accomplice with his father in acquiring ill-begotten wealth. Simultaneously, Amit Shah issued instructions to BJP leaders in Bihar not to attack Nitish Kumar and concentrate more on Lalu Prasad’s corruption.
At the JD(U) meeting on July 5, Nitish Kumar said how he had been very particular about his “zero tolerance” policy towards corruption and how he compelled three of his former colleagues to resign when they were charge-sheeted. He suggested that Tejashwi Prasad Yadav “explain pointwise” the charges levelled against him, in keeping with his “zero tolerance” policy. But Nitish Kumar did not explain why the BJP had no problems with Uma Bharati, charge-sheeted by the CBI in a more serious crime, or Narottam Mishra, a charge-sheeted Minister in Madhya Pradesh.
Although the FIR names Tejashwi Prasad Yadav in the list of accused persons, it does not say what he is guilty of. “What will Tejashwi explain when the CBI itself has not explained its charges against him?” asked Bihar RJD president Ram Chandra Purbe. Lalu Prasad presided over a meeting of the RJD subsequently and rejected the JD(U)’s demand for Tejashwi Prasad Yadav’s resignation. Nitish Kumar met Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to explain how it was imperative that all the alliance partners maintain alliance dharma. By then, he and BJP strategists had already fine-tuned the strategy. Nitish Kumar abruptly resigned on July 26, taking Lalu Prasad off guard. “Despite his claim that he reads politics well, Lalu Prasad was not ready to believe that Nitish Kumar would break the alliance. Nitish Kumar had decisively outwitted him,” said a leader close to Lalu Prasad.
Against people’s mandate Muslim and Yadav lawmakers in the JD(U) are unhappy with Nitish Kumar’s move. “My conscience does not allow me to support Nitish’s move. The people of Bihar voted against communal forces. The decision is not in consonance with the people’s mandate,” said Ali Anwar, an MP of the JD(U). Punam Yadav, JD(U) MLA from Khagaria, said: “Tejashwi has been subjected to injustice. He should not have been asked to quit unless charges against him were proved.” A Muslim MLA who did not want to be named said: “The decision is grossly against the people’s mandate. People who voted against communal forces are feeling cheated.”
The abrupt collapse of the “grand alliance” has reduced the options before Yadavs, Lalu Prasad’s constituency, and Muslims. With Lalu Prasad all set to play the victim card for his son, Yadavs are expected to rally behind him with more ferocity and bite. And Muslims—at the receiving end under the Modi-Shah dispensation—have no option left but to stay with the Lalu Prasad-led alliance in Bihar. Together, Yadavs and Muslims constitute about 30 per cent of the State’s electorate.
Lalu Prasad has already indicated that he will bring the embattled Dalit community into his fold by offering a Rajya Sabha seat to Mayawati, who recently resigned as an MP citing the increasing number of atrocities against Dalits under BJP rule. The breakup of the alliance will compel Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit Musahar community leader, to join hands with Lalu Prasad. With Nitish Kumar in the NDA, the space for Jitan Ram Manjhi—whom Nitish Kumar had used and eased out in the run-up to the 2015 elections—has shrunk in the NDA. Another entrant to Lalu Prasad’s fold might be Upendra Kushwaha, a Central Minister and head of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party. Kushwaha is a leader of the Koiris, whose numbers are next only to Yadavs in the Bihar hinterlands.
On the other hand, the upper castes, who have been supporting the BJP for over two decades now, will come back to the Nitish Kumar-led NDA. Nitish Kumar has cultivated the extremely backward classes all through his tenure and will expect these sections to be with him.
The biggest advantage for Nitish Kumar is that Lalu Prasad, in all likelihood, might go to jail for a protracted period. The real test will come then for Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, who is set to lead the party in the legislature and outside the House as well. After lodging the FIR against him, the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government might go for the kill with Tejashwi Prasad Yadav too. So he will have to learn to swim in the middle of a storm.
Nalin Verma is a senior journalist and an assistant professor at Lovely Professional University, Phagwara, Punjab.