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Was Nitish Kumar’s Latest Flip-flop the Kiss of Death to His Political Career?

Nitish, whose latest U-turn to the NDA was considered a masterstroke by some, may have become a liability now.

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Earlier this week, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was seen in Prime Minister Modi's roadshow in Patna, waving the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) lotus symbol instead of the arrow of the Janata Dal (United). He looked visibly lost and not the centre of attention, and while Modi gave interviews on campaign vehicles, nobody took bites from Nitish.

A video has gone viral where Modi is waving to the crowd and Nitish is meekly standing next to him, waving the lotus.

In the larger context, with Bihar witnessing a seven-phase election, ground reports suggest a tighter contest than in 2019, which was a one-sided one that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 39-1 against the Mahagathbandhan (MGB).

Nitish Kumar’s gharwapsi to NDA boosted its prospects ahead of the polls, or else the MGB was expected to make substantial gains with him on their side. However, Nitish Kumar’s fourth palti has dented the image of sushashan babu to a great extent; so much so that seats that the JD(U) is contesting have seen low turnouts.

His latest U-turn to the NDA, considered a masterstroke by some, might have made him a liability for the alliance as he is, perhaps, emerging as its weak link. The JD(U) is contesting 16 seats with the party giving up just one seat compared to the 2019 elections. The BJP was hoping to allocate fewer seats to it, but Nitish did not budge.

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JD(U) and BJP in Previous Elections, Together and Apart

Nitish has done well during Lok Sabha elections in the Modi era whenever the JD(U) has contested in alliance with the BJP. In 2014, when he contested alone, his party could win just two seats with a 14 percent vote share. The BJP-led NDA, however, won 31 seats. In 2019, when he made a comeback to the BJP, the party won 16 of the 17 seats it contested, with the NDA improving its tally to 39 out of 40 seats.

In the Vidhan Sabha elections though, it’s a little different, i.e., whichever party has tied up with JD(U) has emerged victorious. In 2015, the JD(U) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal handed a drubbing to the BJP, while in 2020 the JD(U) and the BJP won narrowly despite the spirited performance of the MGB led by Tejashwi Yadav.

Nitish left the NDA in 2013, just before the 2014 general elections when Modi was appointed as the BJP’s campaign committee chief as he nursed prime ministerial ambitions. After exacting revenge in the 2015 assembly elections, he made a comeback to the NDA in 2017, having an upper hand of sorts.

In the 2019 general elections, the JD(U) won 16 seats and the BJP 17 — a relationship of equals despite the nationalism fervour because of which PM Modi’s image received an unprecedented boost. In the ministry formation that followed, JD(U) stayed out of the cabinet as it was offered just one position.

In the 2020 assembly elections, the BJP went with Nitish as the chief ministerial face and despite JD(U) winning much fewer seats than the BJP, he was installed as the CM. In 2022, he left the NDA again to join hands (again) with the RJD, continuing to be the CM, even though his party had fewer seats. This exhibited his strength, i.e., without him, no government could be formed in Bihar.

In 2023, he was the architect of Opposition unity and a founding member of the INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance) bloc, reviving his prime ministerial ambitions. However, after the Congress party was trounced in the 2023 assembly elections by the BJP in three key heartland states, combined with the dilly-dallying of the former in announcing him as PM face of the bloc, Nitish made yet another U-turn and rejoined the NDA.

However, this time, his bargaining power has significantly reduced. He has completely surrendered to Modi, as was evident in some of his speeches during their joint rallies.

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JD(U) is the Weak Link in the NDA in Bihar

Addressing a public rally in Jamui, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on the dais, Nitish Kumar, referring to the RJD, said, "Woh toh jhooth-mooth ke hum beech mein ek baar saath kar liye the (Somewhere between all the lies, we supported him)." And then, referring to the BJP, he added, "Ab kabhi idhar udhar nahi hone waale hai (Now we are never going to switch sides)."

Nitish is dependent on the BJP for his continuance as the chief minister. He also fears an operation lotus on the JD(U) like what happened to the Shiv Sena, and hence, he may have decided to stay with BJP to remain in power. But his gaffes have embarrassed the BJP.

Nitish's mental health condition has become the talk of the town after he repeated the same faux pas in a few rallies and reiterated that the BJP will win more than 4,000 seats in the upcoming parliamentary election. It was also reported that Nitish may not be invited to PM Modi’s rallies anymore.

The relationship status between the BJP and JD(U) has clearly been altered to Nitish's disadvantage with the BJP now calling the shots. In Bihar, JD(U) is contesting 16 seats and on 10 of these, it is facing the RJD. It is here where Tejashwi Yadav is putting up a strong fight against the NDA and hopes to make a dent. Tejashwi seems to have taken credit for job creation when he was deputy CM under Nitish and has gained quite some popularity amongst the youth.

The RJD, in the Vidhan Sabha polls in 2020, through deft alliances, also was able to expand its voter base beyond the Muslim-Yadav communities, making a significant dent in the NDA’s EBC/MBC (Extremely Backward Classes/Most Backward Classes) vote bank.

Analysts believe that BJP voters, this time around, may not turn out in large numbers to back the JD(U) due to his frequent political compromises. Further, the votes that go to Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party may also not transfer fully due to the animosity seen in the 2020 assembly elections, where the party put up candidates against the JD(U), damaging its prospects in 28 seats.

The JD(U) is the weak link in the NDA, and PM Modi has now taken it upon himself to campaign extensively and win seats for the alliance. With Modi in focus, the attempt is to contest in a presidential manner, pushing Nitish in the background to neutralise anti-incumbency.

Nitish is a mahir khiladi of politics. He used to enjoy a solid vote bank of Kurmi/Koeri, EBCs, Mahadalits, and even women. Can he retain his vote share and prove critics wrong? Only time will tell.

(Amitabh Tiwari is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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