Nitish Kumar’s opportunistic alliance with BJP could hurt INDIA bloc’s OBC strategy in Bihar

Published : Feb 08, 2024 09:03 IST - 11 MINS READ

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his former deputy Tejashwi Yadav during the birth centenary celebrations of former Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur, in Patna on January 24. 

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his former deputy Tejashwi Yadav during the birth centenary celebrations of former Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur, in Patna on January 24.  | Photo Credit: PTI

But the BJP’s swift embrace of JD(U) lays bare its all-too-real anxieties heading into the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar’s impudent embrace of the Bharatiya Janata Party on January 28 to form a new government in Bihar was a fraught moment for the allies (the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Congress, and the Left parties) he abandoned in the populous State in the Hindi heartland. With 40 Lok Sabha seats, the State figures prominently in the opposition game plan to interrupt the BJP’s smooth ride to a majority in the upcoming 18th Lok Sabha election. Nitish’s political somersault—the fourth in about eight years—also threatens to wreck the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance’s (INDIA) plan to ignite the backward classes by highlighting their inadequate representation in the government and bureaucracy and express a common resolve to redress that anomaly if it is voted to power.

It was the Bihar Chief Minister who drummed up support among the parties in the INDIA alliance to adopt a discourse centred on the Other Backward Classes (OBC). He argued that this could fragment the BJP’s rainbow Hindu consolidation. Nitish convinced even a centrist force like the Congress, which has no previous history of an OBC push, to adopt this strategy. Since then, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been working tirelessly to reorient his party’s politics around the backward classes, despite warnings from within his party that imitating regional players and raising a pitched campaign for a caste census would deflect attention from the party’s traditional Dalit and tribal voters, whom the BJP too was wooing aggressively, and with some success. The OBC focus, it was warned, could also alienate the thin slice of upper caste votes it still commanded.

In Nitish’s calculations, pledging a head count of the OBCs, laced with allusions to the removal of the upper ceiling on reservation, could trigger a political rebellion among the backward classes against the Modi government and have repercussions for the BJP in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the socialist parties were better equipped to maximise the gains. That, he hoped, would significantly bolster his claim for the top job in an INDIA dispensation.

He veiled his ambitions behind an ostensible commitment to the secular cause, but there is now little doubt that it was his politics of self-aggrandisement that led him to quit the NDA in August 2022 and join hands with the RJD and other smaller allies to form a Grand Alliance government in Bihar. The 2020 Assembly election had resulted in a fractured mandate with the three principal players, the RJD, the BJP, and the JD(U), winning 75 (now 79), 74 (now 78), and 43 (now 45) seats, respectively. He then snapped ties with the BJP, accusing it of trying to split the JD(U). And he has now returned to the BJP camp.

Two theories

Two theories emerge when one examines the turn of events that provoked Nitish to renegotiate a deal with the BJP. One is the headline-grabbing Lalan Singh plot, wherein RJD leader Lalu Prasad reportedly schemed with Lalan Singh, who was JD(U) president, to lure 10 or 12 of his party legislators to the RJD.

According to the anti-defection law, if fewer than two-thirds of a party’s MLAs defect, they lose their Assembly membership. But this is not the case when the party expels them. The strategy was that Lalan Singh would, exercising his prerogative as the JD(U) president, expel a dozen MLAs from the party, who would then take oath as Ministers as soon as Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD became the new Chief Minister with their support.

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The RJD, the Congress, and the Left, with 79, 19, and 16 seats, respectively, would need only eight more legislators to secure a majority in the 243-member Assembly. But Nitish got an inkling of the plan and removed Lalan Singh as party president on December 29, 2023, sparking a series of conflicts in the Grand Alliance.

On January 20, Nitish also changed the portfolios of three of his Cabinet colleagues from the RJD. Whether Nitish’s truce with the BJP was a fallout of the RJD’s overtures to Lalan Singh or whether the RJD attempted to collude with Singh only after Nitish had decided to cross over is still not clear. Sources this reporter spoke to gave conflicting accounts of the developments, with political and ideological affiliations colouring their assessment.

The second theory talks of Nitish’s diminishing clout in INDIA. The Congress was unwilling to make him convener, and, according to informed sources in Patna’s political corridors, even Lalu Prasad had stopped pleading his case. “Whereas he [Nitish Kumar] was obliged to hand over power to Tejashwi Yadav ahead of the 2025 Assembly election in Bihar, the reward for it was not guaranteed,” an informed source in Patna told Frontline on condition of anonymity. “Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal suggesting the name of Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge as the INDIA’s prime ministerial face unwittingly helped the Congress undermine Nitish Kumar.”

There are concerns that Nitish’s departure, and the manner in which it was orchestrated, such as the Modi government’s decision to confer the Bharat Ratna on socialist icon Karpoori Thakur, amid pointed comments from the Bihar Chief Minister about the reluctance of former Congress regimes to acknowledge socialist legacies, may have diluted the opposition’s caste census campaign even before it began. In the run-up to the elections, both the BJP and the JD(U) are expected to accuse the Congress of having stymied a socialist resurgence in India, using anecdotes from the past, such as the one about Karpoori Thakur, which an eager TV media will lap up.

  • Nitish Kumar’s political somersault threatens the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance’s (INDIA) plan to highlight the backward classes’ inadequate representation in the government and bureaucracy.
  • The Congress aims to prevent the BJP from usurping the OBC plank around which Rahul has centred his social justice narrative. The opposition camp also aims to resist it from consolidating gains among the EBCs.
  • RJD and Congress leaders are hopeful that there will be an endorsement of the previous government’s development paradigm, particularly the efforts to create jobs. In 2023 end, 2,16,823 posts were filled in the education sector alone.

Opposition’s strategy

INDIA insiders, particularly the Congress think-tank, are deliberating on the opposition’s strategy against such charges and on how to repair the damage done to their OBC focus.

In Bihar, RJD and Congress leaders are hopeful that there will be an endorsement of the previous government’s development paradigm, particularly the efforts to create jobs in recent months. In November-December 2023, the Grand Alliance government filled 2,16,823 posts in the education sector. A few months ago, 70,000 recruitments were made by the Bihar Police.

“Nitish Kumar has been Chief Minister for nearly 19 years, but it was only in the last 17 months that Bihar witnessed a surge in job creation. People have lauded the role of the Education Minister [from the RJD] in filling posts lying vacant in the education sector for many years,” Congress leader Shakeel Ahmad told Frontline over phone from Kishanganj. He said Nitish’s repeated flip-flops had brought bad repute to Bihar and that “the people of the State will make sure he atones for it, when they cast their ballot”.

When Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra reached Purnea district in Bihar on January 30, Shakeel Ahmed said there was a groundswell of support. Rahul used the opportunity to convey the message that Nitish had initially been hesitant about conducting a caste census, but that the Congress and the RJD had persuaded him to do so. “We told him [Nitish Kumar] that you have to do a caste survey, we can’t let you off on that. He was forced to do the caste survey. Then he came under pressure from the other side because the BJP did not want a caste count. Nitishji got caught in the middle. Then the BJP showed him a way and he went there,” Rahul said. Nitish has rubbished the allegation.

The findings of the Bihar caste survey that began in January 2023 were made public on October 2, 2023. It revealed that the OBCs comprised 63 per cent of the State’s population.

Rahul’s attempts to discredit Nitish’s pro-backward class leanings reflect the determination in the opposition camp to resist the BJP-led NDA from consolidating gains among the Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), which outnumber the assertive OBCs represented by the RJD in Bihar. The Congress attempt is also to prevent the BJP from usurping the larger OBC plank around which Rahul has centred his social justice narrative to counter the polarising Hindutva narrative that has paid the BJP handsome dividends in the Hindi-speaking belt.

Ideological reconfiguration

The sense of urgency in the BJP to hinder any attempts at a backward class ideological reconfiguration is so strong that it is willing to push back its plans to usurp Nitish’s core EBC voters, a project that was under way in Bihar, and pivot to an auxiliary role under a Chief Minister who has, for nearly two decades, prevented the BJP from grooming its Bihar leaders for a bigger role or expanding its voter base beyond the forward castes.

Anand Kumar, retired professor of sociology in Jawaharlal Nehru University, explained the BJP’s helplessness. “Although the BJP has made deep inroads into the OBC castes everywhere in India, its stand against a caste census was renewing its old reputation of a ‘Brahmin-Baniya party’,” he said. According to him, Nitish was the arsenal the BJP needed at this point to upset the opposition’s steadily evolving pro-OBC narrative. Its Bihar ambitions could wait.

RJD supporters raise slogans against Nitish Kumar, in Patna on January 28.

RJD supporters raise slogans against Nitish Kumar, in Patna on January 28. | Photo Credit: Pappi Sharma/ANI

But the party’s State leaders are crestfallen. Since Nitish walked out of the NDA in August 2022, they had expressed hopes, both in public and private, about forming a wide coalition of smaller OBC castes in time for the next Assembly elections in Bihar, tentatively slated for November 2025.

Against this backdrop, the Modi regime’s recourse to expediency suggests that despite its propaganda about a facile victory in the upcoming Lok Sabha election, it is not entirely optimistic about its prospects in several important States, including Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, where a reversal of fortunes can make even the 250-mark in the Lok Sabha an arduous climb.

What adds to the enormity of the challenge is that the BJP cannot compensate for these seats either in the northern States, where it reached the pinnacle in 2019, or in the south, where a resurgent Congress is expected to benefit from the Modi government’s aggressive pandering to the Hindi heartland and the cultural exhortations, aspirations, and lexicon emerging from it, all of which cut little ice below the Vindhya ranges.

The BJP’s election managers are known for swift and sharp electoral responses. They engineered a split in the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra, powered an alliance with the JD(S) in Karnataka, and have now again swallowed their pride in Bihar. Interactions with politicians and political observers in Bihar reveal that the BJP’s current stance is only a stop-gap arrangement; it is expected to get back at Nitish as soon as it gets favourable numbers in the Lok Sabha election. Its anointment of Samrat Choudhary as one of the two Deputy Chief Ministers gives credence to this.

Also Read | Halting the juggernaut

Choudhary has been publicly acrimonious to Nitish and belongs to the Koeri community, which together with the Kurmi community, make up the JD(U)’s Luv-Kush caste coalition. Observers view Choudhary’s elevation as the BJP’s message to its cadre to not jettison its expansionist project in Bihar, although the obligations of realpolitik do not allow it to challenge Nitish’s waning hegemony immediately.

The moot question is: Will not a crafty politician like Nitish read the writing on the wall and act proactively? There is a possibility that he might dissolve the Bihar Assembly mid-term and opt for simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. That would allow his party to leverage general public approval for Modi as well as the formidable social coalition that the NDA now represents in Bihar, and increase its numbers, making it challenging for anyone to fraudulently overturn it.

In the 2020 Assembly election, Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) acted as a vessel of the BJP and ruined the JD(U)’s prospects in several constituencies by fielding candidates against it. Holding the Assembly election along with the Lok Sabha election would make the JD(U) immune to such sabotage, as the collective stakes of the NDA would be too high for the BJP to hazard.

The cards have been picked by each player carefully, and the intent to delude is paramount. For now, however, mutually exploitative political considerations have created a fragile stasis.

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