Nitish Kumar is not known to be an impulsive politician. So what he does next would essentially depend on what options he has presently. This, in turn, would depend on what other parties, especially BJP, RJD, and Congress, are willing to offer him.
Option 1: Switch Sides, Go Back to Mahagathbandhan as CM
This would mean going back to the 2015-2017 arrangement of allying with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. Presently, the Left parties like the CPI-ML, CPI, and CPI(M) are also part of the alliance.
However, it won't be easy for Nitish Kumar to go back to the Mahagathbandhan as a lot has changed since 2015-17 and he has largely himself to blame for this.
Given the manner in which he switched to the NDA in 2017, there is a major trust deficit among the Mahagathbandhan constituents towards Nitish Kumar.
The JD(U) is a much weaker party than it was in 2017. It had 71 seats then, it has just 45 now. On the other hand, the RJD has become stronger and now stands at 80 seats.
The anti-incumbency against Nitish Kumar is much stronger presently than at any time in the past. Therefore, for RJD to support a Nitish Kumar-led government may be counter-productive as it would mean bearing the burden of the anti-incumbency against him.
JD(U) is a much weaker party than it was in 2017. Even Nitish Kumar's popularity isn't what it was between 2005 and 2017.
JD(U) insiders, however, dismiss these points and say that the RJD's bargaining power is constrained by the prospect of its leaders being arrested.
Option 2: Remain With the BJP for Some More Concessions
It is no secret that the BJP has been trying to cut Nitish Kumar to size. The manner in which Chirag Paswan's LJP put up candidates only to defeat the JD(U) during the Assembly elections while supporting the BJP in the rest of the state, was a clear indication of the BJP's plan.
It worked to some extent as the JD(U)'s tally came down drastically while the BJP went up to 77 seats.
JD(U) insiders allege that the BJP wanted an 'Eknath Shinde' solution to take over the party, but they were thwarted by Nitish Kumar's timely action against RCP Singh, known to be BJP's favourite in the JD(U).
"We don't need the Shiv Sena lesson to teach us. We always knew that their eventual plan is to destroy the JD(U). But they underestimated Nitish Kumar. He is no Uddhav Thackeray," a senior JD(U) leader told The Quint.
However, it may be a bit reckless for the BJP to antagonise Nitish Kumar before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The state gave NDA a massive win in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with the alliance winning 39 out of 40 seats.
Upsetting Nitish Kumar at the present moment would mean pushing him towards the Mahagathbandhan. The RJD's Muslim-Yadav base, JD(U)'s support among Kurmis, MBCs and Mahadalits and the pockets of influence of Congress and CPI-ML, make it a formidable alliance, one that could inflict losses on the NDA.
However, the threat of such an alliance can at most buy Nitish Kumar time from the BJP till the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. If the BJP comes back to power in 2024, it may want to install its CM in Bihar and not get saddled with Nitish Kumar's anti-incumbency for the 2025 Assembly polls.
Therefore, even making peace with the BJP right now would at most give Nitish Kumar two more years as CM. It is not a reliable option for him in the long run.
Option 3: Hand Bihar to Tejashwi Yadav, Move to National Politics
This is a slightly more audacious plan, but one that cannot be ruled out. It involves Nitish Kumar dumping the BJP in the near future, supporting Tejashwi Yadav as the chief minister of Bihar and shifting to national politics as an important leader of the non-NDA front.
In some ways, this seems an interesting option for Nitish Kumar. Because all said and done, he is past his peak in Bihar politics. He is no longer the Sushasan Babu of 2005, 2010, or 2015. The JD(U) has weakened in strength and his personal popularity has also declined.
What has still ensured Nitish Kumar's survival is the fact that many voters – especially non-Yadav OBCs and Mahadalits – feel they have some more say with him at the helm compared to outright dominance by the upper caste-dominated BJP and Yadav-dominated RJD. However, even that hold has weakened. The BJP and RJD, on the other hand, have become stronger.
By the 2025 Assembly elections, Nitish Kumar would be on the cusp of turning 75 and fighting for a fifth term in power may not be a very appealing prospect for him
Therefore, a dignified move to national politics may be prefeable to what seems an inevitable sidelining by the BJP and RJD.
Presently, the only party that can give Nitish Kumar a respectable push to national politics is the Congress.
An interesting offer was on the cards before Nitish Kumar's switch of 2017. The offer was that Nitish Kumar would merge the JD(U) with the Congress, hand the chief ministerial reins to a Congress CM and eventually, move to national politics as a Congress leader.
For whatever reasons, the negotiations broke down between Nitish Kumar and the Congress and the rest, as we know, is history.
However, a modified version of this is still possible and it is not surprising that a negotiation channel has opened up between Nitish Kumar and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
Whether it is through a merger with the Congress or by becoming part of a Congress-led national alliance, Nitish Kumar's national move can only happen through the Grand Old Party. Because, otherwise, the choice he has is between being a significant but junior partner of the BJP or the RJD.
Sources in the Congress say that this time on, the party leadership is much more "flexible" in its negotiations with Nitish Kumar, because of the recent ups and downs in the party's equation with the RJD.
One section of the Congress feels that the JD(U) is a preferable ally for the party compared to the RJD.
"We must face it that the Congress lost a great deal of Upper Caste and even some Dalit support due to its alliance with the RJD and assertiveness of the Yadavs (during RJD rule). Nitish Kumar represents a soft kind of leadership that can take along OBCs, Upper Castes, Dalits, and Muslims as well. Congress in Bihar has more in common with Nitish Kumar than the RJD," revealed a source within the Congress, who has closely watched party affairs in Bihar.
However, what would Nitish demand from the Congress and whether the Congress is in a position to concede what he wants, remains to be seen.
As of now, both the BJP and RJD seem to be waiting for Nitish Kumar to make his move. A lot would also depend on how much courage Kumar has as well as the control he has over his own party.