Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is not a politician who makes comments without a reason. So when he says that RJD's Tejashwi Yadav will lead the Mahagathbandhan in the 2025 Assembly elections, Kumar definitely has a plan in mind.
So what is Nitish Kumar's plan?
First, this is what the Bihar actually said:
Hum jitna sambhav tha utna seva kiye. Hamra ek baat maaniye..jo aage kuchh bhi hoga, Tejashwi ji kaam ko poora karte rahenge aur karwate rahenge. Koi diqqat nahi aayegi"Nitish Kumar, Bihar chief minister
Translation: "I served as much as was possible. Listen to one thing I say, whatever is to be done in future, Tejashwi ji will get it done. There won't be any problem".
There are broadly four realisations driving Nitish Kumar's current political plans
1. Realisation 1: Nitish Kumar's Innings as Bihar CM is All But Done
Nitish Kumar has been Bihar's chief minister for the last 17 years. This is except for the Jitan Ram Manji interregnum around 2014-15 that was orchestrated by Kumar himself.
From bringing down the RJD's dominance in 2005 to winning a record mandate in 2010, Kumar's Janata Dal (United) has now been reduced to number three status in Bihar - it is behind RJD and BJP both in terms of votes and seats.
Given this, it is highly unlikely that either of the two big parties would back Kumar as CM one more time.
2. Realisation 2: Tejashwi Yadav's Popularity is Rising, JD-U is Increasingly Dependent on RJD's Organisation
The present political situation in Bihar as well as the dynamics within the Mahagathbandhan are very different from what they were in 2015.
In 2015, the RJD needed Nitish Kumar as the face of the coalition. Party chief Lalu Prasad was still ineligible to contest due to this conviction, Tejashwi Yadav was too fresh to don the mantle and the RJD still faced the baggage of what some social groups perceived as its misrule of the 1990 and early 2000s.
The situation is very different now.
Tejashwi almost won the 2020 Assembly election on his own might, in alliance with smaller players like the Congress, CPI-ML, CPI and CPI-M.
To an extent he even managed to move beyond the RJD's Muslim-Yadav base by fighting the election on the plank of unemployment.
There's also the fact that given JD-U's organisational weakness, its reliance on RJD's political machinery is increasing. Nitish Kumar realises this.
3. Realisation 3: Bypoll Defeat Signals Vulnerability of Mahagathbandhan
It is tempting to club the Kurhani and Gopalganj bypoll defeats in the same category but they are actually very different results.
BJP has been winning Gopalganj since 2005. It won even in 2015 when it was up against a united Mahagathbandhan.
In 2020, the BJP candidate had won by a margin of over 20 percent votes. The BJP's margin in the 2022 bypoll was just 1 percent. This is despite internal sabotage by Sadhu Yadav as well as the presence of the AIMIM.
Kurhani, on the other hand, the Mahagathbandhan should have won. It was the RJD's seat in the 2020 elections.
The defeat in Kurhani did send the clear sign that the Mahagathbandhan can't rely on arithmetic alone in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
One big reason for the vulnerability in the Mahagathbandhan's arithmetic is the erosion in the JD-U's base among non-Yadav OBCs and Mahadalits. This is besides the loss of support among Upper Castes due to its break-up with the BJP.
The 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls clearly showed that the BJP can perform way beyond its core base in a national election and disturb the arithmetic of social justice based parties.
4. Realisation 4: Nitish Kumar's Real Challenge is Now National
This partly stems from what we discussed in Point One - the unviability of another term as Bihar CM. It seems clear that the best way ahead for Nitish Kumar is to pitch himself in national politics ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
"I am not a prime ministerial or chief ministerial candidate. My goal is to defeat the BJP," Kumar said at the same function in which he pitched Tejashwi Yadav for 2025.
Compared to other regional leaders presently aspiring to be PM - Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and K Chandrashekhar Rao - Nitish Kumar has adopted a low-key but much more practical approach.
It is more practical because realistically, no non-BJP leader can become PM in 2024 without the help of the Congress. Maybe if BJP wins one more term and there is a major churn in the Opposition space, this might be possible in 2029. But it can't happen in 2024.
Therefore hypothetically if non-BJP parties somehow come close to a majority in 2024 and there is scope for another 1996-like arrangement, Kumar will have a much better chance than Banerjee, Kejriwal or KCR. Among regional leaders in the anti-BJP space, Kumar's acceptability is second only to Sharad Pawar.
In the past Kumar has even been open to a complete merger with the Congress if it facilitated a move to national politics.
The prospect of Tejashwi Yadav as CM in 2025 is important to ensure that Yadav votes go with the Mahagathbandhan and not the BJP in 2024.
However, the same prospect shouldn't drive non-Yadav OBCs and Mahadalits towards the BJP as these sections have tended to be wary of Yadav domination.
As it is the BJP has consolidated this entire base in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. In Bihar, it is Nitish Kumar who has been standing in their way.
Without at least 25 seats for the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar in the Lok Sabha elections, any national role for Nitish Kumar would be unlikely.