By Harihar Swarup
Can Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar really go back to the Mahagathbandhan? And, can his return really make much of difference in 2019 Lok Sabha polls? In May this year, speculation began in political circles about his return to the Grand Alliance, giving the opposition the push it needs for 2019 polls. It has suddenly become a hotly debated subject and the Bihar Chief Minister, who had become least important of the BJP’s allies, is back to centre stage again.
Nitish has done U-turn four times: He was with Lalu in 1990; he joined NDA in 1996; broke ranks with the NDA in 2013 after 17 years’ alliance; forged a Mahagathbandhan with Lalu in 2015; and jumped the fence again in 2017. No matter whatever is the provocation, flip flops are acceptable in politics only to a point and Nitish may find it difficult to do another U-turn.
JD(U), like BJP’s other allies, has been flexing its muscle. Nitish’s supporters have made known their unhappiness with the BJP. JD(U) is talking tough, seeking 25 out of 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar in 2019 Lok Sabha elections even though it won only two in 2014 poll and would, in all probability, be happy with 11 or 12. It wants the number to be calculated on the basis of its performance in 2015, not 2014.
Its leaders also demand that the general election campaign in Bihar be conducted under the leadership of Nitish. This means, both Nitish and Narendra Modi, will have parity while campaigning in the state.
Nitish’s phone call to a hospitalized Lalu to inquire about the health of the ailing leader, and apparent bonhomie between Bihar CM and Lalu’s family members at his elder son Tej Pratap’s marriage, not long ago, naturally had political mills churning overtime. Congress is engaged in Track-II talks with JD(U) to see if Nitish can return, even if there are not many to welcome him.
But Tejashwi Yadav, Lalu’s son, who has emerged as his successor, has ruled out return of Nitish to grand Alliance fold. He has been gaining ground, with Araria and Jokihat byelection victories under his belt. Though only 28, Tejashwi has displayed a political maturity beyond his years.
Congress sources said Tejashwi is privately not opposed to uncle Nitish’s return. Nor is Lalu. But they would like him to make amends publicly. While Nitish’s return to secular fold would naturally give a fillip for opposition, an apology by him may do nothing for his own politics.
It was clear from his bye poll defeats recently that his own constituents did not take it kindly to his going against the 2015 mandate given to the Grand Alliance. That may be one contributing factor for the sympathy Lalu has begun to garner in Bihar of late.
Though Lalu has polled 16 per cent of the popular votes in 2014, his vote base overlaps with that of BJP (MBCs and Mahadalits). In a polarized fight, and with Nitish back with Lalu, some of them might shift to BJP.
Nitish has burnt his boats. In the event of opposition winning 2019, Nitish is not likely to be given a position or pride at the centre. The position remains the same if the Grand Alliance wins in Bihar in 2020. Lalu as the senior partner would insist on crowing of Tejaswi.
On the other hand, if the Modi-led BJP loses ground at the Centre in 2019, Nitish’s prospects of continuing as NDA’s CM candidate in Bihar in 2020 would improve. The BJP, then, is less likely to mess around with the existing allies.
In all probability, Nitish is talking tough to BJP to improve his bargaining position for seats in the 2019 battle. And to signal that he has options other than NDA.
Sensing the weakening of BJP, in recent bye polls—and wooed by the opposition—BJP’s partners, in general, will prefer to drive a hard bargain with the Saffron party rather than leave it for uncertain pastures on the other side. This is something that the Congress and other opposition parties will have to factor into 2019 strategy even if they get ready to meet Amit Shah’s onslaught to prevent opposition from joining hands.
While BJP is not ignorant of what Nitish Kumar is all about, it should not forget that Bihar’s CM, who has been credited with having given the state a good government, is known to react if pushed to the wall and humiliated. Nitish could still make a difference in Bihar, and therein lies his importance. At the end of the day, it is UP and Bihar which will decide who will be victor in 2019. (IPA Service)