BJP's manoeuvres in Bihar

Losing the plot?

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Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and BJP president Amit Shah before a breakfast meeting in Patna on July 12. Photo: PTI

The BJP’s realpolitik considerations in Bihar and its manoeuvres in the Rajya Sabha ahead of the monsoon session of Parliament mark a clear retreat from its show of confidence and daring.

On the morning of July 12, approximately a week before the beginning of the monsoon session of Parliament, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah landed in Patna, the capital of Bihar, and immediately embarked on one of the most intensive and long-winded consultations he has had in recent times. From the airport he drove straight to the State Guest House for a breakfast meeting with Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister and president of the Janata Dal (United), who heads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in the State. Shah was accompanied by Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP and the party’s national general secretary in charge for Bihar, Bhupendra Yadav.

The breakfast meeting broke briefly after an hour or so, but the leaders regrouped for a lunch meeting and then again came together for discussions in the evening. Evidently, this high-profile get-together was as fixated and focussed as it could possibly get. Its importance was accentuated by the fact that the “all powerful” BJP president is not known to shower this kind of attention on anybody, least of all a political ally which does not have widespread roots or strength at the national level. Shah topped off this extraordinary excursion with a warning of sorts to political adversaries: “Don’t salivate thinking you would be able to wean Nitish Kumar away from the NDA fold. He is firmly with us.”

The reasons for this exceptional behaviour were not far to seek. Barely five days ago, the JD(U) had held its national executive meet in New Delhi where Nitish Kumar came up with yet another bravura performance filled with acute political nuances and layers of meanings and undertones. He stressed that his party was resolutely opposed to corruption as well as communalism and warned that those thinking of marginalising his party in the State would be the ones who would get marginalised.

Nitish’s speech

It is well known that in Nitish Kumar’s words, corruption denoted his one-time political ally, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by former Chief Minister Lalu Prasad. Nitish Kumar has also time and again used the epithet of communalism to describe his current ally, the BJP. The speech was followed up with a series of pronouncements by other JD(U) leaders, including senior general secretary K.C. Tyagi, castigating the aggressive Hindutva politics followed by some BJP leaders in Bihar and adjoining Jharkhand, especially Union Ministers Giriraj Singh and Jayant Sinha. Giriraj Singh publicly expressed support to persons accused of rioting and claimed that the Bihar government was suppressing Hindus, while Sinha garlanded people convicted of lynching a Muslim man in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh district.

That Nitish Kumar was saying all this amidst a debate within Bihar’s political circles, especially within the Congress, one-time ally of the JD(U), on his return to the “Grand Alliance” of secular parties was obviously not lost on the BJP leadership. The debate on this idea, termed by many Congress leaders as “the return of Nitish Kumar to the secular fold”, was essentially based on the perceived differences between the BJP and JD(U) on the seat-sharing formula to be adopted for the 40 seats in Bihar in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Of course, Nitish Kumar himself had not raised the issue in public forums, but senior members of his party, including K.C. Tyagi, had made it clear that the senior partner of the NDA in Bihar would have to be the JD(U).

Shah’s overtures to Nitish Kumar, as witnessed through the day on July 12, was against the background of all this. Although the details of the discussion are yet to come out, senior leaders of both the BJP and the JD(U) in Bihar admitted in private that seat-sharing was indeed the primary focus of the deliberations. A Delhi-based senior JD(U) leader told a clutch of journalists that “the parties are working towards a formula based on equity, parity and mutual respect” and that “there was no question of anybody playing ‘big brother’ in Bihar’s NDA, which comprises not merely the two big parties but also smaller ones such as the Lok Janshakti Party [LJP] and the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party [RLSP]”.

By all indications, the arrangement that the JD(U) wants to work out is one where the party and the BJP would contest an equal number of seats and leave the rest to the smaller allies. The JD(U) is reportedly expecting an arrangement similar to the one it had with the RJD for the 2015 Assembly elections. While the JD(U) and the BJP are in alliance in Bihar, Nitish Kumar has not yet joined the NDA at the Centre.

The tussle can be traced back to 2014 when the JD(U) contested the elections independently, objecting to Narendra Modi’s elevation as the Prime Ministerial candidate. The party got drubbed in that election, winning just two seats, while the then NDA won 31 seats from the State (BJP 22, LJP 6 and RLSP 3). In the new context, the JD(U)’s argument as expressed by a number of senior leaders is as follows: “The 2014 Lok Sabha elections were the worst for the party, but still we got 17 per cent of the total votes polled and this is a big share in any coalition, as established by the 2015 Assembly elections.”

Following the 2014 rout, Nitish Kumar joined hands with the RJD and the Congress for the Assembly elections in 2015. This Grand Alliance trumped the BJP-led NDA, and Nitish Kumar was re-elected Chief Minister though the JD(U) won fewer seats than the RJD. However, Nitish Kumar walked away from the alliance blaming the RJD leadership’s corruption and joined hands with the BJP once again in July 2017. He also retained the Chief Minister’s position with BJP support.

The realpolitik calculation that Nitish Kumar apparently had at that time was that there would be no effective counter to the BJP or the dominance of Modi’s leadership in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. However, the outcome of a spate of Lok Sabha byelections and Assembly elections in Gujarat and Karnataka in the past 10 months showed that this calculation was indeed misplaced.

Equally important is the fact that several allies of the BJP in 2014, including the powerful Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Shiv Sena, have parted ways with it with the resolve to oppose the BJP in the forthcoming elections.

The BJP was defeated in an overwhelming majority of the Lok Sabha byelections, including in places considered party fortresses such as Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. This defeat happened when the powerful regional forces, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), came together in Uttar Pradesh. The recent byelection at Kairana in western Uttar Pradesh also showed that the S.P.-BSP alliance continues to have appeal when the combine supported Tabassum Hassan, a candidate of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), yet another influential regional party in western Uttar Pradesh.

Key factors

Talking to Frontline, a Delhi-based senior BJP leader from Uttar Pradesh pointed out that this series of electoral reverses was indeed the key factor that impelled Shah to accord better treatment to Nitish Kumar and his party. “These defeats, coupled with the developing situation in the run-up to the monsoon session, especially the forthcoming election of the Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, have made even the redoubtable Shah a bit jittery, and that is exactly what is getting reflected in the July 12 meeting,” the leader said.

The outgoing Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, P.J. Kurien of the Congress, demitted office on July 1, after occupying the position since August 2012. The election to the post is normally held in the session that follows the vacation of the occupant. But the parting of ways of allies such as the TDP and the Shiv Sena has made it difficult for the BJP to get its own candidate elected to the post. The election is decided on a simple majority in the Rajya Sabha.

As things stand now, the combined opposition has 117 members in the Rajya Sabha as against the NDA’s 95. Thirty-two MPs belonging to parties such as the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and the YSR Congress are yet to indicate which side they would go. The BJP leadership is not sure whether in the prevailing political situation marked by repeated electoral reverses to the BJP, these parties will come over to their side easily. In this context, the clear indications from the BJP leadership are that the election to the post may not be held in the monsoon session, scheduled for July 18 through August 10.

The BJP leadership cites precedents when elections to the post were delayed because of exigencies. While indeed this argument would hold on technical grounds, the larger political import of the development is one that underscores the BJP leadership’s conspicuous absence of political sure-footedness. Both Modi and Shah were revered in the BJP as well as in the echelons of the larger Sangh Parivar for this display of supreme confidence and daring in the face of situations evaluated by others as extremely challenging.

However, what people in these echelons themselves are witnessing from the Bihar negotiations and the manoeuvres in the Rajya Sabha in the context of the monsoon session is a clear retreat from the normal show of confidence and daring. Several leaders of the BJP who have been sidelined since 2014 point out that this will add to new manoeuvres and perhaps even significant political churning in the larger political framework, including within the BJP and the NDA.

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