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Bihar political churn

Twists and turns: BJP and Nitish Kumar joust in Bihar

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
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Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (right) with RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav at an iftar party, in Patna on April 22.

With the BJP trying to assert its supremacy in Bihar and Nitish Kumar neutralising its attempts with clear anti-Hindutva messaging and overt gestures towards the RJD, the State is poised for exciting political games in the near future.

OVER the past three months, the political landscape in Bihar has been witness to realpolitik churning, intriguing political manoeuvres by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and other leaders, and rampant speculation about the government’s future.

The churning began with the ‘political swallowing up’ of the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP), an erstwhile component of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the State, when the three MLAs it had joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on March 23.

With that, the BJP’s strength went up to 77 in the Assembly, displacing the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which has 75 MLAs, as the single largest party.

Campaign against CM

Immediately after this development, BJP MLAs began a murmur campaign, asserting that Nitish Kumar and his party, the Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), should formally accept the BJP’s supremacy. Their argument was that the BJP had won 74 Assembly seats in 2020 as against the JD(U)’s 43, although both parties had contested about the same number of seats.

The BJP leaders also said that their party had given up the Chief Minister’s post because there was a need to maintain unity within the NDA. But now, they said, the situation had changed dramatically with the BJP officially becoming the biggest party in the Assembly. Several MLAs publicly demanded that Nitish Kumar step down as Chief Minister and allow the BJP to nominate one of its leaders to the post. Some of them went to the extent of saying that Nityanand Rai, Union Minister of State for Home, who is considered to be very close to Home Minister Amit Shah, should replace Nitish Kumar.

Nitish Kumar did not formally respond to this campaign. However, during an informal interaction with journalists, he said the Rajya Sabha was the only House he had not been a member of, and the comment was perceived as an indirect acceptance of the campaign run by the BJP MLAs. A section of BJP MLAs promptly misconstrued this to be an indication that the JD(U) leader had decided to move to the Rajya Sabha, probably as the next Vice President, with the BJP’s support. These rumours also started doing the rounds in Bihar’s political circles.

Once again, Nitish Kumar maintained a steady silence, but other JD (U) leaders responded rather vehemently. A number of JD(U) leaders asserted on various social media platforms, including Twitter, that the Chief Minister was not going anywhere.

Upendra Kushwaha, head of the JD(U)’s national parliamentary board, said: “Nitish Kumarji has got the mandate to serve the people of Bihar for five years. This means he is not going anywhere. He is the Chief Minister and will continue in the capacity.” Sanjay Kumar Jha, the party’s national general secretary and Minister for Information and Public Relations, said on Twitter: “This is mischievous and far from [the] truth. Shri Kumar has [the] people’s mandate to serve Bihar and will continue to do so for the full term as Chief Minister.”

But speculation continued on the moves of the NDA leadership in Bihar. Then, in April, Nitish Kumar, in his signature style, came up with a number of actions that contained both direct and indirect anti-Hindutva and anti-BJP messages.

The first of these was his presence at an iftaar party hosted by Tejashwi Yadav, leader of the RJD-led opposition in the Bihar Assembly, at his 10, Circular Road residence.

Warming up to Tejashwi

In a gesture that reminded political observers of Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s famous walk in 2004 to Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ram Vilas Paswan’s house in preparation for the formation of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), Nitish Kumar walked from the Chief Minister’s official residence at 1, Aney Marg to Tejashwi Yadav’s residence. The bonhomie between the two leaders was noticeable. A day later, hours after a brief meeting with Amit Shah, Nitish Kumar shifted out of 1, Aney Marg to 7, Circular Road. This move too was interpreted as a forerunner of possible political changes. The last time Nitish Kumar shifted to this house was in 2013, a few days before he made Jitan Ram Manjhi the Chief Minister.

The administration claimed that the Chief Minister’s official residence required considerable renovation and that it was difficult for him to function from there. Significantly, Nitish Kumar collected all his belongings, including 11 cows, while moving house.

Six days later, the minority cell of the JD(U) hosted an iftar party, which Tejashwi Yadav attended. Once again the two leaders exuded warmth and respect. Nitish Kumar surprised many when he escorted Tejashwi Yadav up to his car.

Then, on the day of Eid-ul-Fitr in early May, Nitish Kumar beefed up security for mosques across the State after the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP) planned to organise Parasuram Jayanti celebrations near many important mosques, in a thinly-veiled attempt to create communal tension. The Chief Minister’s move to enhance security came as a clear signal that he was determined to prevent any untoward incident. The Chief Minister also made it a point to visit a massive Eid-ul-Fitr celebration in Patna that was attended by thousands of Muslims. Simultaneously, he also denounced the move of several BJP State governments, including the Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh government, to remove loudspeakers from mosques. He said: “Pulling down loudspeakers from religious places is nonsensical. Our government will not carry out such moves.”

Other JD(U) leaders picked up the cue and began castigating BJP politicians in Bihar who wanted the Uttar Pradesh move to be replicated. Janak Chamar, Minister of Mines and Geology, the most vociferous among the State BJP leaders, ran a campaign saying: “Religion is not above the law and hence, like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar too should remove all loudspeakers from mosques.” But Shrawan Kumar, senior JD(U) leader and Minister of Rural Development, said that there was no need for such a move. He said: “We are against the imposition of such laws on religious places. The use of loudspeakers from religious places will continue in the State.”

Upendra Kushwaha said: “We have the Nitish Kumar model of governance, which treats and respects all communities equally. All religious places have loudspeakers for different uses.”

UCC and NRC

Separately, a day after Amit Shah asserted that the Central government was determined to implement the uniform civil code (UCC), both Lallan Singh, JD(U)’s national president, and Upendra Kushwaha spoke out against it. They issued identical statements that the uniform civil code was “not in the interest of a nation full of diverse cultures and customs”.

Nitish Kumar has not commented on the UCC, but he has raised questions on the anomalies in the questions framed for the Census, which was scheduled in 2021 but has been delayed because of the pandemic. Speaking to media persons in early May, he said that the JD(U) had asked the Centre to include only those questions agreed upon in 2010. He said: “The present format includes questions about the birth date and place of parents. Does everybody know this? This was not traditionally followed. We have written to the Centre that this should not be included and that the Census should be conducted as per the 2010 provisions.” In the past he had branded these questions as a ploy to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) through the back door.

Despite these statements from Nitish Kumar, Bihar BJP leaders continued to assert that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah would persuade him to accept the post of Vice President. They cited a long private meeting that Dharmendra Pradhan, Union Minister of Education, had with Nitish Kumar on May 5 as a clear indicator of things moving in that direction. Pradhan’s visit was not disclosed to the media or to all top BJP leaders in the State. Only a handful knew about it.

However, JD(U) leaders and several political observers are of the view that a dynamic and shrewd politician like Nitish Kumar will not settle for a constitutional position, which will ultimately mean disbanding his own party and offering absolute power in the State to the BJP on a platter.

Speaking to Frontline , Nalin Verma, a political observer, said that despite the JD(U)’s depleted vote share and fewer MLAs, the BJP cannot do without him to ensure victory in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Said Verma: “If Nitish crosses over to the RJD, the saffron party in all likelihood will lose irreparably in Bihar in 2024. There are pointers to this from the past. Just a year after the BJP conquered Bihar in the 2014 general election, the JD(U)-RJD-Congress mahagathbandhan secured a massive majority in 2015, reducing the BJP to 54 in the 243-member Bihar Assembly.”

Nitish Kumar has, by and large, played second fiddle to the BJP in his current innings as Chief Minister, added Verma, but he knows very well that given his image and manoeuvring skills, he is still a crucial force in the State’s political landscape.

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