Ever since the grand alliance of Bihar took shape, one was well-aware that it was only a matter of time. Having observed the primary players in the alliance for years, knowing how they functioned and what the dynamics were in this situation, one knew it wouldn’t last long. One and half years after Nitish Kumar took over as the chief minister of Bihar, it looks as if the final nail on the coffin has been hammered in.
Nitish Kumar is considered among the shrewdest politicians in the country. No shrewd politician allows pride to get the better of them. No shrewd politician sacrifices their entire career for an old political miscalculation. Nitish Kumar’s political miscalculation wasn’t his alliance with convict Lalu Prasad Yadav. His miscalculation can be dated to 2013, when his party withdrew from the NDA after the announcement of Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial candidature. Nitish didn’t think the NDA would make it past the halfway mark without him, and he certainly did not anticipate the BJP winning a simple majority by itself.
In the state of Bihar, the 2014 parliamentary elections were a three-cornered fight. The BJP and its allies won 31 out of the 40 seats. In retrospect, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise. The three main players in Bihar, Nitish’s JD(U), convict Lalu’s RJD and the BJP, control a similar vote-share. If any of the two come together to fight an election, they win by a landslide. If it is a three-cornered fight like it was in 2014, factors like the Modi wave and anti-incumbency are enough to give one of the sides a slight edge, enough to win big.
After the 2014 elections though, Nitish couldn’t simply walk right back into the NDA fold. He faced internal dissent too for the huge losses his party had incurred. After being backstabbed by the aide who replaced him as chief minister, Nitish could have chosen to fight the assembly elections alone and suffer the same fate. This would have rendered him a non-entity and effectively finished his political career. His sizeable vote-share would have once again, just as in 2014, amounted to nothing.
Nitish chose to allay with convict Lalu Prasad Yadav, because this was the only way he could save face and survive in government at the same time. The mainstream media’s analysis about the Bihar assembly elections in November 2015 was asinine: people didn’t perceive Nitish as an alternative to prime minister Modi, the BJP didn’t run a terrible campaign, nor was Nitish a messiah in Bihar. It was simple arithmetic. Two of the major players had come together, and they won a thumping majority.
The mainstream media was quick to put Nitish on a pedestal, and projected him as the one who would lead the united opposition against Mr. Modi in 2019. But knowing how shrewd a man Nitish is, it is unlikely that he bought this hogwash. There were two reasons his emergence on the national stage were improbable. The first of course was Narendra Modi’s popularity. Whether it was the surgical strike or demonetization, how popular Mr. Modi’s decisions were, was visible election after election. The BJP juggernaut is nowhere close to slowing down, and 2019 looks like a given now. The other reason was convict Lalu Prasad Yadav.
Among the factors that initially propelled the Nitish-BJP combine to power in 2005 was lawlessness, prevalent under convict Lalu and his wife when they ruled the state.
Lawlessness was institutionalized during their regime, and Nitish understood perfectly well that one of his mandates was to fight it. Nitish threw several criminals in prison, worked towards improving the effectivity of law enforcement and led a genuine crusade against crime. This was much appreciated, and his core constituency was satisfied. But running a government in alliance with convict Lalu, and convict Lalu acting as the power behind the throne, Nitish’s efforts to fight crime have gone down the drain. Ever since he took over once again in November 2015, lawlessness has reemerged. Republic TV’s first expose of convict Lalu taking orders from hardened criminals and running the state according to their fancies, demonstrates the resurgence of the erstwhile ‘gunda-raj’. This threatens to alienate Nitish’s core constituency.
After the BJP’s massive victory in Uttar Pradesh, it is becoming increasingly clear that 2019 will be a given for the saffron party. Moreover, to exert pressure on the grand alliance, BJP has deployed their rising star Yogi Adityananth to deliver Bihar for them. Hailing from the U.P-Bihar border and revered by every caste and class for a being a yogi, he presents a huge threat to the grand alliance.
Nitish realizes that this is the opportune moment to snap ties with convict Lalu, and convict Lalu is well-aware of this. But neither of them wants to be the one who breaks the alliance. If convict Lalu breaks the alliance, the BJP will swoop in and support the government. Left with no political leverage whatsoever, convict Lalu would be hounded by both the state and the central governments in relation to several pending cases. Nitish prefers that it be convict Lalu who broke the alliance, for the sake of optics. He doesn’t want to come across as the chief minister who dumped an ally and replaced it with another immediately, only to stick to power.
So Nitish has been needling convict Lalu to break off the alliance, and convict Lalu, if reports are to be believed, is attempting to make a deal with the BJP before the alliance breaks off finally.
The media and the BJP have received a steady inflow of material to implicate more members of convict Lalu’s family of corruption, and some of them are serving ministers in the Bihar government. Who the supplier of this material might be, is a no-brainer. On the other hand, reports have emerged about the top brass of convict Lalu’s RJD lobbying with the BJP leadership to get the charges against them dropped. In exchange, it is believed that they have offered to finish Nitish Kumar’s political career entirely. However, the BJP is unlikely to strike such a deal. Nitish presents no direct threat to the BJP currently as he is unlikely to challenge prime minister Modi in 2019. Moreover, were he to return to the NDA, he would be a huge political asset.
It is in this backdrop that the presidential elections and its political ramifications must be perceived. Just when a semblance of opposition unity was taking shape, the Modi-Shah duo did what they do best. They made a stepping-stone out of an obstacle. They drove a wedge between the opposition by announcing Mr. Kovind’s candidature, and disrupted any potential opposition unity in the future. Kovind, who served as the governor of Bihar, is in excellent terms with Nitish and his government. This was the perfect excuse for Nitish to support him. After drawing the ire of both the RJD and the Congress Party, the JD(U) stated that their relations with the BJP had been more ‘natural’. Despite holding the largest number of seats in the Bihar assembly, convict Lalu seems cornered now. The grand breakup of the grand alliance is expected in the coming weeks.