- Congress, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Yadav are allies in Bihar
- Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister, backs BJP choice for President
- Allies believe his decision and method reflect new ties with BJP
To some extent, the Congress got its own back today - it led the opposition's decision to put up former Speaker Meira Kumar, a Dalit from Nitish Kumar's state of Bihar, as its candidate. That makes things awkward for Nitish Kumar, who chose to back the BJP's Ram Nath Kovind, who is also a Dalit and the former Governor of Bihar.
The Congress in Bihar has asked Nitish Kumar today to change his mind; his party has indicated it remains committed to the rival BJP candidate.
That extends the lease on the growing distance between Nitish Kumar and his allies.
The group of anti-BJP parties had 17 members, who had agreed that they would meet today in Delhi to decide who to run against the BJP's nominee in what the Left has billed as "a battle of ideologies." But yesterday, Nitish Kumar pulled the plug on that understanding with his early announcement that he would support Ram Nath Kovind. Strike Two: he said his party would not attend today's meeting.
On Monday, the BJP revealed that it had selected Ram Nath Kovind as its man for Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Bihar Chief Minister, according to his aides, phoned Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and informed her that he would throw his weight behind the BJP nominee, who is a Dalit, and as Governor of Bihar enjoyed a good understanding with Mr Kumar.
The next evening, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad flew from Delhi to Patna to meet with Nitish Kumar at an iftar party hosted by the Bihar branch of the Congress. The gathering to celebrate the breaking of the roza or daily Ramzan fast allowed the leaders to quickly confer. Ghulam Nabi Azad, sources said, urged Nitish Kumar to wait till today to disclose that he would, in fact, vote against the front of parties that he had helped conceive just two months ago.
The Chief Minister, sources said, was non-committal.
His early announcement ensured him centerpiece headlines yesterday and also served the BJP's purpose, even if advertently, of forcing other opposition parties to reconsider their stand. The fact that Nitish Kumar would neither back their candidate nor attend today's meeting left the opposition's effort looking considerably atrophied.
Nitish Kumar's party leaders have rejected those allegations. KC Tyagi said there was no point in attending today's session after the Congress made it clear that it would not back Ram Nath Kovind.
KC Tyagi also stressed that just earlier this month, Mr Kumar and Left leader Sitaram Yechury met at DMK chief M Karunanidhi's 94th birthday celebrations in Chennai and agreed to push Gopal Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, as the opposition's candidate.
Sources in Nitish Kumar's party said he was irked by the delays in moving ahead with Gopal Gandhi's candidature and blamed the Left and the Congress for inertia.
Nitish Kumar's coalition government in Bihar includes the Congress and the party of Lalu Yadav, who is now worried that the Chief Minister is swerving away from their partnership to reunite with the BJP, with whom he split in 2013. The Congress also feels betrayed because it lobbied with Lalu, a former rival of Nitish Kumar, to form the alliance that won the last election in Bihar in 2015, ensuring a third consecutive term as Chief Minister for Nitish Kumar.
"The opposition had to unite; my question is, what happened to that unity? He had to work according to the alliance but he did not. We are against the BJP," said Raghuvansh Prasad, a senior leader of Lalu's party, in an attack on Mr Kumar.
Sharad Yadav and other leaders from Nitish Kumar's party say that their teaming with the BJP on the Presidential election does not augur a rekindling of an old flame. "We will continue to fight the BJP on other issues," Sharad Yadav said to reporters yesterday.