It’s all come full circle for Nitish Kumar — again. Dumping the BJP for the second time in nine years, Nitish has walked back into the arms of the RJD and the Congress, an alliance he walked out of in 2017, accusing the RJD’s Tejaswi Yadav of corruption. Today, as his party feared a split engineered by the BJP a la Uddhav Thackeray and Maharashtra, Nitish Kumar turned his back on the BJP again in what he sees as an existential crisis for himself and his party. It was about political survival in 2017 too, when he walked out on his alliance with the RJD.
What this says about Nitish’s political credibility is another story. His political flip-flops are infamous now, and he took oath as chief minister for the eighth time. But it is also cute of the BJP to act as if this is a huge betrayal, which is how they have described it. Wasn’t it a betrayal in 2017 as well, when Nitish walked out on an alliance which came together in the 2015 assembly polls and ruled for two years?
How will Nitish’s flip-flop impact Bihar’s politics and the opposition’s fight against Narendra Modi for 2024? ... his alliance with the RJD is strong for now as far as the numbers are concerned.
All was not well in the JDU-BJP alliance for some years. It was glaringly in the 2020 assembly polls where Nitish believed that the BJP propped up the LJP’s Chirag Paswan to quit the NDA and contest on 120 seats, which significantly cut into the JDU’s votes. Nitish was reduced from 71 seats in 2015 to 43 seats by 2020. The election result rankled, and tensions only got worse.
Local BJP leaders, including the BJP speaker of the assembly, did not hesitate to take pot shots at the chief minister. Friction grew over issues like holding a caste census and the BJP central government’s Agnipath job scheme, which saw the strongest protests among the youth of Bihar. Over the last few months, Nitish and Tejaswi Yadav worked quietly to forge the old mahagathbandhan alliance again.
Then there was the spectre of Maharashtra. As one of his top aides RCP Singh turned on him, Nitish feared an ‘Uddhav Thackeray’ would be done on his party, which was the last straw. BJP President JP Nadda’s recent remarks that only the BJP will remain and that other parties will be finished only worsened things. The BJP’s track record in dealing with allies weighed heavily on Nitish’s mind.
The first signs were evident in early May when Nitish walked across the road to Tejaswi’s house and attended his Iftar party. It was a move that set the cat amongst the pigeons. When Tejaswai attended a JDU iftar, Nitish made the rare gesture of walking him out to the gate. Over the last few months, the RJD and the JDU have not attacked each other in public, and it is widely believed that Tejaswi-led protests for a caste census were egged on by Nitish. Amid all this, Nitish began to snub the top BJP leadership openly. He skipped four meetings with top central leaders since mid-July, including the prime minister’s dinner for the new president and a meeting of the NITI Aayog as recently as last Sunday.
So how will Nitish’s flip-flop impact Bihar’s politics and the opposition’s fight against Narendra Modi for 2024? I’m curious to see how Bihar’s voters will react to Nitish’s constant political U-turns. But his alliance with the RJD is strong for now as far as the numbers are concerned.
Nitish also has national ambitions. With his clean image and clear political clout, he was a clear favourite to lead a joint opposition once upon a time. Today, that opposition space is more crowded, with Mamata, Kejriwal, and KCR among the leading contenders for the same job. As an opposition chief minister from a Hindi heartland state, Nitish has a big advantage where a Hindi-speaking leader will be more acceptable to win crucial states nationally. His presence could give a fillip to the opposition camp, which is only partially united, as the recent presidential elections show, though an angry BJP says Nitish’s political U-turns have damaged his credibility permanently.
For the BJP, Bihar is an unfinished ambition. The party has never ruled the state independently and is determined to change that. They will now focus on all 243 seats in the Bihar assembly but concede their biggest weakness in Bihar is the lack of a strong face to take on Nitish Kumar. The BJP is seething with anger over Nitish’s betrayal, and the top leadership is silent so far. Their next moves will be closely watched.