BJP ‘Collusion’ With LJP: Why Nitish Won’t Go Down Without a Fight
Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, who is aiming for a 4th term, isn’t one to twiddle his thumbs while BJP ‘colludes’ with LJP.
There are only three assertions which can be stated with certainty regarding the election narrative of Bihar.
One, it has unambiguously slipped into unscripted political terrain. Between now and 10 November, when votes would be counted, and possibly even much beyond that, expect the unforeseen.
Two, this is going to be the season of double-dealing.
Parties will profess something and act contrarily. Alliances will formed officially but only to be violated. Hidden liaisons and unstated intentions shall be the norm in this election season.
Three, the market for peddlers of conspiracy theories has suddenly opened up – suddenly every possibility appears plausible. The popular idiom in Hindi – ‘Muh mein ram ram bagal mein chhuri ‘(Ram on the lips, while holding a dagger in hand) – will be true for almost every party, especially the ruling coalition.
Have Creases In Mahagathbandhan Indeed Been Ironed Out?
What a change in barely ten days since the Election Commission of India sounded the bugle for India's first state assembly elections in the post COVID-19 era.
At that time, the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) not just appeared settled, but was also the odds-on favourite. The BJP had repeatedly reiterated over several months that it would enter the hustings with Nitish Kumar as its chief ministerial leader, and the alliance appeared to be heading towards cordially reaching an agreement on seat-sharing, among the principal partners – the Bharatiya Janata Party and Janata Dal (U) as well with the minor partner, Jitan Ram Manjhi's Hindustani Awam Morcha.
Within opposition ranks, the Mahagathbandhan, despite facing an uphill task, appeared to be a front where creases had been ironed out.
The bandwagon was clearly missing the charismatic Lalu Yadav, but it hoped to benefit from the hint of anti-incumbency against the chief minister and the state government's handling of the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic. Although a major polling agency virtually awarded Bihar to the ruling coalition and rated Nitish Kumar way ahead of his principal rival Tejashwi Yadav, it put out a proviso – the majority of respondents were angry with the government and were keen for a ‘change’. However, an outlier agency, that cannot be dismissed due the promoter's track record, was more definitive about change being possible, and put Tejashwi Yadav ahead of the chief minister in popularity ratings.
BJP’s Tacit Support For The Paswan Scion
The straws in the wind were clearly recognised by the BJP and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), now stewarded by Chirag Paswan.
The BJP’s comprehension of the political reality is certainly the basis for tacit support for the Paswan scion to loft the banner against Nitish Kumar while reiterating support for BJP.
However, the manoeuvre became too evident, for the young LJP leader stated that he had ‘complete faith’ in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and that the “thought with which the prime minister mentioned “double-engine ki sarkaar” – if it is followed correctly – could help implement his vision on the ground.” He added that the state needs a BJP-led government, obviously arguing that Nitish Kumar’s time was up. This obviously angered the JD(U).
It is likely that Paswan Junior overplayed his card, and made the probable tacit BJP support for his move too obvious.
With the BJP not yet in a position to completely walk out of the partnership with JD(U), there will possibly be several more rounds of negotiations because it is Nitish Kumar's turn to call the BJP's bluff.
BJP’s Effort To Find ‘In-House’ Opponent May Well Backfire
Not a leader who would twiddle his thumbs while the BJP ‘colluded’ with the LJP to pull the rug from beneath his feet, the man aiming for his fourth straight term cannot be expected to act like the mythological Abhimanyu who failed to find a way out of the Chakravayuh.
Nitish Kumar certainly has a trick or two up his sleeve and will not go down without a fight. His counter moves were obviously behind the delay in the BJP to announce its list of candidates and formally announce the seat-sharing formula.
It is likely that the last has not been heard of the alliance arrangement. The posture Nitish Kumar adopts towards LJP and its declaration that it remains wedded to BJP will have to deciphered in the absence of a formal declaration.
The BJP possibly was guided by the sense that there was no challenge from an enfeebled Opposition. But its effort to find an in-house opponent may well backfire.
Much has changed from the years preceding Modi becoming prime minister in 2014. In 2010, the last state election the BJP and JD(U) fought in alliance, Nitish Kumar successfully prevented Modi from campaigning in Bihar. In 2017 when Nitish Kumar walked out of his political marriage with Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and broke bread with BJP, it was clear that the relationship with Modi remained uneasy at the least. But the two continued with one another due to necessity.
Some of the past hostility obviously has surfaced, although neither leader has let this become too obvious. The JD(U) has little future beyond Nitish Kumar, but the BJP has allowed the impatience of its leaders to have a free run, using this as payback for his stance during Modi's ascendancy.
Will BJP Want To Reclaim ‘Senior Partner’ Tag?
The Bihar chief minister was certainly boxed since 2018 and his options began dwindling. Eventually, the BJP shared seats equally with JD(U) for the 2019 parliamentary polls because it initially was not sure of the wave in favour of Modi post-Pulwama.
The BJP now may wish to reclaim the senior partner tag that was its prior to 2004.
By affirming that it would contest the assembly polls under Nitish Kumar's leadership, the BJP lulled him into complacency, and he did not explore other avenues.
As events in Maharashtra demonstrated in 2019, even a pre-poll pact can be jettisoned depending on the result. These are still early days, and nothing cannot be ruled out.
Increasingly however, Bihar appears heading for a fragmented verdict. Even in the event of the alliance being stitched and the BJP-LJP underhand deal remaining a non-starter, it is difficult to visualise the BJP and JD(U) cadres working for candidates of the partner.
As a result, like pre-poll equations, the post-poll situation too would remain fluid. Control over the state bureaucracy however will be a major advantage for the JD(U).
Will Nitish Kumar Be Able To Leverage State Machinery In JDU’s Favour?
Even though the BJP is a coalition partner, the Bihar chief minister is astute in leveraging the state machinery in favour of his party.
Nitish has leaders in his team that have the capacity to ply the bureaucracy to benefit party candidates and hinder its ally’s nominees.
Looking over every other factor is of course the issue of Modi's larger-than-life image still looming large. But his popularity will be a major factor only if there is a complementary engine pulling in the same direction.
Paswan's move and the formation of the third front comprising Upendra Kushwaha and Mukesh Saini’s VIP party, has introduced more spoilers in the game. India's first poll under the shadow of the pandemic might have forced certain safety procedures, but little else has changed – and the rules of the game remain as cut-throat as always.
(The writer is an author and senior journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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