Champagne should ideally have flowed freely in the ruling camp—but of course, there’s prohibition in Bihar. Champagne, you could say, is an impossibly elitist metaphor to deploy in one of India’s poorest states, but seemingly impossible things have been happening here. At the end of waves of rapture going in the opposite direction during the campaign, Janata Dal (United) stalwart Nitish Kumar has returned to power yet again, leading his alliance to a fourth consecutive victory in the state assembly elections. In the next few days, he will be sworn in as chief minister for the seventh time—a feat none of his predecessors could ever boast of. One of the canniest politicians of contemporary India, Nitish may have been arguably too canny in writing himself off from a larger national role that may have been his for the taking—even if this election brings fresh proof of his grandmastery on the complex chessboard of Bihar. And yet, there’s a double-edged nature to this mandate and this may turn out to be an eventful—and internally attritional—tenure.
That’s why celebratory cacophony appears to have been put on silent mode, at least in Nitish’s party. The NDA may have managed to scrape through in a nail-biting finish against a spirited Mahagathbandhan (MGB) led by RJD’s young turk Tejashwi Prasad Yadav, but it has turned out to be a pyrrhic victory of sorts for Nitish. For a towering leader who strode like a colossus both within and outside his alliance not so long ago, statistics vouch for a clearly diminishing clout.
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The NDA has won 125 seats—only three seats more than the majority mark of 122 in the 243-member Vidhan Sabha—just about enough to be able to hold on to the reins of power for another term. The final outcome may have come only as a solace to Nitish given the bleak picture painted for the NDA by most exit polls. For the 69-year-old leader, it is doubtless a below-par performance by his own standards, certainly no patch on what he pulled off in the last three elections. The end-result is being matched against what the alternative could have been—a looming grey, perhaps even imminent political sanyas, a wry hint of which he gave in the last stages of the campaign, calling this his “his last election”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) with Nitish Kumar at a campaign rally.
But cut to 2015. Nitish then was with the MGB—indeed, was its co-author along with his old bête noire, Lalu Yadav—and he led it to a two-thirds majority with a tally of 178 seats. This was around the time when he was floated in some quarters as a potential ‘secular alternative’ for prime minister who would be agreeable to all sides. Matched against that, everything is a diminution.
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Five years earlier, he had secured a three-fourths majority for the NDA with 206 seats in the 2010 assembly polls. Even in November 2005, when the JD(U)-BJP alliance finally managed to oust the RJD from power after 15 years, he had romped home with a comfortable majority of 142 seats. That’s with the UPA ruling in the Centre, and Lalu in his prime, ruling the roost as Union minister.
Compare 125 seats against Lalu’s son with that high. Minus minor allies such as Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular (HAM-S) and Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP)—which won four seats each—the formidable JD(U)-BJP combo would not get a simple majority on its own, even with Narendra Modi hitting the campaign trail. Together, the two parties running the so-called “double engine sarkar” in Bihar would end with 117 seats—JD(U) with a mere 43 and BJP with 74. That equation itself has changed—suddenly, the saffron outfit has evolved into the big brother, and for the first time in 15 years, Nitish has been relegated to the status of junior partner within the NDA.
Observers believe the days are not far when the BJP might start calling the shots by virtue of its numerical strength. For somebody like Nitish, known to have always dictated terms to his allies, be it over the number of seats or the allocation of portfolios, negotiating from a position of weakness may not be a comfortable situation. But how did it happen in the first place?
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Political commentator Pavan Varma thinks Nitish has fallen victim to a conspiracy hatched within the NDA. “In my view, Nitish and JD(U) have been an unfortunate victim of a conspiracy to downsize him,” Varma tells Outlook. “The campaign launched by LJP leader Chirag Paswan, where he openly abused and attacked Nitish and put up candidates against him, led JD(U) to lose up to 30 seats it would otherwise have won. In that case, it could have emerged as the single largest party.”
The diplomat-turned-politician calls it a conspiracy because Chirag played a curious dual game—he’s a member of the NDA at the Centre and yet he was openly attacking another NDA ally. “No serious attempt was made by the BJP leadership to curb him. He continued to attack Nitish and even called himself Modiji’s Hanuman,” he points out. “So it appears that, through him, the BJP has achieved its goal of reducing Nitish and his party to the status of a junior partner in the coalition and restrict him to just being the leader of Bihar.”
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Varma, once a Nitish confidant and a former JD(U) Rajya Sabha MP, believes the CM may no longer be able to assert his authority as he always did in the past. “The JD(U) has always been the primary party in the NDA on the basis of its legitimate number of seats and Nitish has always been its leader,” he says. “That has changed now. Whether he agrees to be CM in these circumstances is a decision he has to take, but I’ve no doubt the poll will influence the alliance’s functioning. The BJP is an expansionist party. With a greater number of seats, the pressure will grow within the party to have a chief minister of their own.”
The BJP has sought to allay such apprehensions. State party president Sanjay Jaiswal cites the BJP central leadership’s unambiguous stand on the CM question. His predecessor, Sushil Kumar Modi, says the BJP has time and again made it clear that Nitish will remain chief minister. “We will form the government under Nitish’s leadership and run it for the next five years,” the deputy chief minister says. “There is no confusion about it.” He admits Chirag’s presence in the fray harmed the NDA in at least 30-odd seats, and that the alliance tally would have gone past 150 had the LJP not played “votekatwa” (vote-cutter)—yet disavows any spillover effect from that.
Nonetheless, there remains a growing sense of unease in the JD(U). It’s triggered by a nagging doubt that Chirag could not have dared to enter the fray with the sole objective of defeating JD(U) candidates without the BJP’s tacit support. Even though the LJP could win only one seat, it harmed the JD(U) in as many as 36 closely-fought contests. In a constituency like Dinara in Rohtas district, Chirag fielded a rebel BJP candidate, Rajendra Singh, once an RSS strongman from BiharJharkhand. His presence in the fray pushed JD(U) minister Jai Kumar Singh to third position. The BJP itself and other NDA allies too bled on account of the LJP in at least six seats. Everywhere, LJP candidates polled more votes than the margins of victory of NDA’s rival MGB candidates.
It was not as though Nitish had no inkling of what was happening. Even as Chirag was going hammer and tongs at him in his rallies, JD(U) leaders were saying they had identified who was pulling his strings from behind the scenes. They stopped short of naming anybody, but it was an open secret that they suspected the hand of the BJP, vehement denials from saffron leaders notwithstanding. As the chasm widened over Chirag’s curious stand—caught in the motto “BJP se bair nahin, Nitish ki khair nahin” (no enmity with BJP but won’t spare Nitish)—senior BJP leaders, from Union home minister Amit Shah to party president J.P. Nadda, reiterated that Nitish would remain their CM candidate regardless of the number of seats won by the respective parties. But that didn’t satisfy JD(U) leaders. They were apparently hoping that Modi would personally attack Chirag to dispel the impression of LJP being a BJP proxy. The PM, however, did not go beyond making some veiled references to the 37-year-old LJP president.
Lalu Prasad’s absence hurt the Mahagathbandhan.
Political analysts are reading between the lines. Social scientist Nawal Kishore Choudhary says the NDA might have won the election, but Nitish has lost. “The BJP may not disturb Nitish immediately, as it has to focus on the Bengal and UP assembly elections soon, but there’s no denying that Nitish has seen his stature reduce,” he says. “Democracy is about numbers, after all.” Choudhary, in fact, thinks Nitish would do well to work for an honourable exit from Bihar’s politics since it’s inevitable the BJP will sooner or later try to get its own chief minister. “The BJP has played second fiddle for a long time. It’s certainly aspiring to take the lead now. It would be a face-saving move for Nitish to shift to the Centre and be part of the Modi cabinet. In any case, he has announced it’s his last election.”
There’s another move left on the chessboard though—unsaid but very much present. And Nitish keeps that in reserve. The BJP knows fully well, says Choudhary, that Nitish has the ability to switch sides again—as he did in 2017. “With 110 seats, the MGB is within sniffing distance of the majority mark and Nitish may have no qualms in joining forces with Lalu again, as he did in 2015, if he finds himself getting too marginalized,” he says. JD(U) leaders, like its Bihar unit president Vashishtha Narayan Singh, on the face of it attest to the stability of the present arrangement—saying “Nitish’s name was announced by all top BJP leaders, including PM Modi. And it has been mandated by the electorate. Where is the question of any doubt over it?” But Choudhary says it’s that unplayed card that will “serve as a protective shield around Nitish.”
Yes, the BJP has publicly always projected Nitish as the leader, but it’s also true that a section of party leaders has always voiced their resentment over this, grumbling that the party should cease to play a secondary role. Many of them believe the party has allowed itself to be cut to size and let Nitish grow in stature over the years at its own expense. “During the first NDA tenure, soon after Laloo’s ‘jungle raj’ came to an end, BJP ministers held key portfolios and played an equal part in bringing Bihar on the track of development, but it was Nitish alone who walked away with all the credit,” says a party leader, preferring anonymity. “The state BJP leadership has since done nothing except toe Nitish’s line. Thankfully, the situation has changed considerably in the Modi-Shah era.”
Modi took centrestage for NDA.
Modi and Nitish have a bit of history. Going back to the pre-Modi era, contrary to popular perceptions, the BJP wasn’t always playing second fiddle to Nitish—it was the other way round. Back in the Vajpayee-Advani era, that duo had handpicked Nitish to be the NDA’s CM in a regime that lasted barely seven days in 2000. At that time, the BJP had some 67 MLAs while Nitish’s erstwhile Samata Party—which later merged with the JD(U)—had only 34 MLAs in undivided Bihar. The BJP top brass needed somebody like Nitish, an OBC leader with a clean image, to help realise its long-unfulfilled project of unseating Laloo. Hence, he was again projected as the NDA’s CM candidate ahead of the November 2005 elections—that was their first triumphant one. Since then, Nitish went on to consolidate his position to such an extent that he could call the shots. Some of those shots were against Modi, still the Gujarat CM and a rising figure in the BJP back then. Nitish had convinced the then BJP leadership not to invite Modi to campaign in Bihar during the 2009 parliamentary polls so as not to upset his Muslim voters. In 2010, he even cancelled a dinner in honour of senior BJP leaders at the eleventh hour to protest the publication of a photograph of him with Modi, clicked a year earlier at an NDA rally in Ludhiana. In 2013, Nitish finally walked out of the NDA when it became clear that Modi would be its prime ministerial candidate.
But Nitish, like everyone else, had to contend with the Modi wave that washed over everything. The JD-U performed disastrously in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls but Nitish allied with RJD and Congress to lead the MGB to a massive victory against NDA in the 2015 assembly polls. It was a year and a half later that he chose his tactical path, returning to the NDA—resigned to the idea of working with Modi’s BJP, a vastly changed organisation—so as to keep his Bihar fiefdom robust. In 2019, Nitish had to share an equal number of seats (16 each) with the BJP for the first time. Until then, they would share seats on a 60:40 basis but the new BJP was no longer willing to be anything but an equal partner in the alliance. Nitish suffered another setback when the BJP offered only one ministerial berth to the JD(U) at the Centre, despite his 16-MP contingent. An angry Nitish decided not to join the government, and the BJP did not even bother to mollify him. The equations had already changed.
Political commentator Amalendu Nayaran Sinha says it is Nitish who needed Modi this time. “Nitish may have won this election but he owes it to the PM,” he says. “It was Modi magic that acted as an antidote to the strong anti-incumbency wave against Nitish. In fact, he relied on Modi’s campaign to turn the tide. Ironically, he had once prevented the same Modi from campaigning in Bihar,” Amalendu says. He feels the BJP may keep its word on retaining Nitish as the CM for now but would keep him on a tight leash. They are doubtless the big brother. “The problem with Bihar BJP is that it doesn’t have a leader of Nitish’s stature…it needs to groom someone from its own ranks. Until then, Nitish will be allowed to remain in the saddle. But the roles have certainly reversed now.”