Lok Janshkathi Party (LJP) founder Ram Vilas Paswan’s 74th birthday on July 5 signalled some new churning in the political equations of Bihar, the Hindi heartland State where the Assembly elections are expected to be held in October-November 2020. Top leaders of the country, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and a number of others from both the ruling coalition and the opposition parties greeted Paswan on his birthday. One conspicuous exception was Bihar Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, president of the Janata Dal (United), and numero uno of the National Democratic Alliance ( NDA ) rulling the State. Over the past couple of months, there have been many mutually critical and adversarial statements from the leadership of the LJP and JD( U ), partners in the State government along with the BJP, but Nitish Kumar not extending the basic courtesy of conveying his birthday wishes to Paswan is being perceived in Bihar political circles as a definite pointer to some major turbulence in the coalition.
The hostile exchanges between the leaders of the LJP and JD(U) had been taking place over many issues, but what has apparently upset the Chief Minister greatly is the recent COVID-19 criticism by the LJP’s young national president Chirag Paswan, who is also the son of Ram Vilas Paswan. Commenting the palpable deficiencies in the State governement’s management of the Covid situation, Chirag Paswan, who is also the NDA’s Lok Sabha member from Jamui, had accused the government as of suffering from “governance deficit at the top”. Apparently, there were no concrete or pressing reasons for Chirag Paswan to come up with such a caustic and open criticism of the Chief Minister .
In this context, political observers are of the view that the younger Paswan’s comment should be read in conjunction with Ram Vilas Paswan’s innate political acumen to be on the winning side in almost all the major elections in the State. The LJP has been part of the ruling coalition at the Centre for continuous 16 years, ten of them as part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) After being part of the UPA government during 2004-14, the “political weathercock” that is Paswan moved over to the BJP led NDA just before the 2014 elections. There is a stream of opinion in Bihar’s politics that Nitish Kumar’s popular appeal has diminished in recent times on account of factors such as the general mismanagement of the Covid crisis and the physical distancing he has maintained from the masses over the past three months by completely shutting himself out of public engagements and confining himself to his residence in Patna, the State capital.
Never one to take caustic comments on his governance record lightly, Nitish Kumar struck back making it clear that the LJP would not get even one of the 12 nominated seats, in the Legislative Council. A Senior JD(U) leader threw light on Nitish Kumar response as follows. “The Chief Minister is appalled that the younger Paswan had been crossing the limits repeatedly by launching disparaging criticisms against the State government. Chirag Paswan has yet not proved his worth and is still under his father’s shadow. He should at least remember that.” Indications are that the JD(U) proposes to split the 12 MLC seats equally with the BJP.
Even as the JD (U) is moving ahead in this direction, LJP insiders say that they would strike back during the seat sharing discussions for the Assembly elections. The LJP’s plan, apparently, is to play around with the ambitions of the BJP in Bihar by demanding a change of the coalition’s chief ministerial candidate. The party’s idea is to project a BJP leader or JD(U) leader other than Nitish Kumar as the candidate for the top post.
Amidst all this, smaller opposition parties like the Congress and the Jan Adhikar Party, led by former Lok Sabha member Pappu Yadav have started wooing the LJP to the opposition ranks. Pappu Yadav has even gone to the extent of stating that Chirag Paswan would be projected as the chief ministerial candidate. There are no concrete indications that the LJP would take the bait, but the conspicuous silence of the party’s leadership is seen by political and politicians, including some in the NDA, as one pregnant with stormy possibilities.