Few politicians in the past decade have taken as many U-turns as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, with his split with the BJP being the latest.
He ended an over decade-long association with the NDA in 2013 in protest against the BJP's decision to project Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate.
After the 2014 drubbing, he made Jitan Ram Manjhi the CM, only to remove him and become CM again. In 2015, he contested as the CM candidate of the Mahagathbandhan, along with the RJD and the Congress, only to ditch them two years later. He rejoined the NDA and accepted Narendra Modi's leadership. Now, he has ditched the NDA again and is all set to rejoin the Mahagathbandhan.
Even within the Janata Dal (United) and Samata Party, Nitish Kumar has fallen out with party presidents like George Fernandes, Sharad Yadav, and most recently, RCP Singh.
Despite so many U-turns, it is interesting that Nitish Kumar has, by and large, managed to maintain his image, and to some extent, his base as well. How he has managed this is a story in itself. There are three elements to this.
Social Base: Kurmis, EBCs, and Mahadalits
The fact that the Janata Dal (United) has occupied the CM's chair in Bihar since 2005, with Nitish being the CM for 16 out of these 17 years, often hides the party's weak base in the state.
In the past two Assembly elections, the JD(U) has been the number three party in terms of vote share, behind both the BJP and the RJD. It is presently number three in terms of seats as well.
However, the JD(U) retains strong support among Kurmis, Koeris, Extremely Backward Castes, and Mahadalits. Nitish Kumar greatly increased representation from these sections by pushing for quotas within quotas.
Many in these sections also see him as a more benign option compared to the Yadav-dominated RJD and upper caste-dominated BJP. For many non-Yadav OBCs and non-Paswan Dalits, Nitish Kumar is seen as a leader who can protect their interests against more assertive communities.
Over the years, Nitish Kumar lost some support among the upper castes due to the BJP's growth, and among Muslims due to his alliance with the BJP. However, even these sections don't see him as being overly hostile.
Ideological Ambiguity: Nitish Kumar as the Lesser Evil for Different Sections
Nitish Kumar has maintained a certain ideological ambiguity, or as his supporters say, an ideological middle ground, in politically polarised times.
Nitish Kumar has presented himself as a social justice politician who is not opposed to the upper castes or Hindutva.
To Muslims, he presented himself as a BJP ally who was not hostile towards them.
He allowed pro-Hindutva elements to grow, and even occupy key positions, but did not allow them a free run like in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, or Karnataka.
The use of state machinery for the targetting of minorities has also been much less pronounced in Bihar than in BJP-ruled states. Bihar witnessed some of the biggest protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and a relative absence of the kind of crackdowns that were seen in UP and Karnataka.
Nitish Kumar presents himself as the lesser evil to different sections. It is the prospect of a more hostile government that makes Nitish Kumar appealing to many sections, even if he may not be their first choice.
Another crucial way by which Nitish Kumar has managed to preserve his relevance despite multiple U-turns is by keeping friendly relations even with political rivals.
Despite a bitter political rivalry between Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, the two always maintained cordial relations at a personal level. When Kumar was in the Mahagathbandhan camp, he preserved his friends in the BJP like Sushil Kumar Modi and Arun Jaitley.
This extended to many estranged colleagues as well. After making him the CM, Kumar was behind the unceremonious removal of Jitan Ram Manjhi from office in 2015. Manjhi left the JD(U) and formed the Hindustan Awam Morcha.
However, after Kumar's latest U-turn, Manjhi was the first to announce his unconditional support.
Then there's Upendra Kushwaha, who the NDA was promoting as another OBC counterweight to Nitish after the latter's break-up with the NDA in 2013. Kushwaha and Nitish were on opposing sides in 2015 and 2020 as well. But now, Kushwaha is back in the party and the chairman of the JD(U)'s Parliamentary Board.
Despite being in the BJP camp, Kumar has also consistently kept a decent equation with both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
So, these are some of the ways by which Nitish Kumar has managed to maintain his hold despite multiple U-turns.
But there's another question we need to ask.
Why Does Nitish Kumar Take So Many U-Turns in the First Place?
Whether these U-turns are masterstrokes or betrayals depends on one's point of view. Perhaps the most value-neutral way to view these is to see them as survival tactics in a difficult political atmosphere.
Nitish Kumar is, in many ways, a politician most comfortable in the 1989-2014 period of coalition politics in India, a period in which regional players could alternate between Congress-led, BJP-led, or Third Front formations without making too many compromises.
This changed after 2014.
It is crucial that most of Nitish Kumar's U-turns have come in the last 9 years, a period that has also seen the dominance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in national politics.
This is a period in which the BJP's rise has greatly weakened not just its rivals like the Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, and Rashtriya Lok Dal but also allies like the Shiv Sena (quit NDA in 2019), Asom Gana Parishad, and Shiromani Akali Dal (quit NDA in 2020).
The BJP's rise has also been made possible by an unprecedented consolidation of Hindu voters across castes in much of north and west India and parts of east and south India.
Nitish's critics would say he lacked the courage to take on the BJP in a consistent manner. However, his supporters would say he was practical and acknowledged which way the wind was blowing.
Unlike states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, which have been relatively insulated from the Modi impact, Bihar has been at its core.
However, unlike UP, where the BJP has succeeded in capturing much of the non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav Dalit vote bank, in Bihar, it has had to rely on Nitish Kumar and smaller parties.
This gave Nitish Kumar some room to manoeuvre.
Therefore, to survive and maintain his independence, Kumar seems to have alternated between opposition and collaboration with the BJP. Because being an ally as well as an enemy of the BJP has come at a major price for most parties.