Let me ask a simple question: can anyone blackmail Modi, the most powerful Prime Minister in the last three decades? Who is ruthless and full of vengeance? The question is intriguing. But there is no mystery as such. Nitish Kumar is the answer. It is true that in recent months, Nitish has been precariously placed. It had been assumed that he had burnt all bridges by re-aligning with the BJP; that he was no longer wanted by the RJD, the party in whose company he contested assembly elections and managed to trounce Modi. He was also nationally discredited as having no ideological convictions. But now, the Bihar scenario is very complicated. Nitish is very uncomfortable with BJP due to the presence of Modi and Amit Shah.
The problem with Nitish is that he was pampered a lot by the old BJP leadership of Advani and Vajpayee. Earlier, he was the king of the alliance and once he moved to the secular fold, he was allowed to believe that he was in the running as its prime ministerial candidate. But now he is worried about being reduced to a fringe player in the 2019 election even in Bihar despite being the Chief Minister. So he is getting bolder. Now he wants to find out how many seats he will get in the 2019 election as part of his alliance with the BJP. His demand is natural but it also part of a bigger game plan. A JD(U) leader, Sanjay Singh, has said
that the BJP was free to fight the election alone. He further said that BJP can't win elections in Bihar without the leadership of Nitish Kumar.
PM Narendra Modi with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in Patna (File photo)
No doubt Nitish Kumar is a towering leader in Bihar who has changed the face of the state. If Lalu is credited with giving a voice to other backward castes and Dalits, then Nitish is acknowledged as someone who has integrated the most backward castes in the development of the state. If Lalu was at the frontline of Mandal Part One, Nitish is the hero of Mandal Part 2. And the 2015 assembly election, which they contested together, was the merger of Mandal Parts One and Two. It was the unification of divided castes that successfully defeated the might of the religion-based politics of BJP/RSS. In 2014, they were not together - and the BJP alliance garnered 32 seats and Nitish's party was reduced to two.
But in the most dramatic fashion in 2017, Nitish decided to defect to the BJP. He was unhappy in the company of Lalu who had installed him as Chief Minister despite his party winning more seats than the JD(U). Nitish's switch-over decision surprised everyone because his rivalry with and opposition to Modi was well-documented.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar abandoned his partnership with Lalu Yadav over corruption allegations (File photo)
Very soon, he was made to realise that he will never be treated as a senior by the BJP. He was asked to deal with the BJP's organising secretary, Ram Lal, about Bihar-related matters. He felt humiliated. He did not get the special package for Bihar which Modi had promised during the assembly elections. He was virtually made helpless by the goons of BJP/RSS who created mayhem at the time of Shivratri - Bihar for the first time in decades witnessed communal clashes.
So Nitish bided his time. Three factors are helping him now to stand up to the BJP:
1) The BJP's inability to form the government in Karnataka which Nitish has interpreted as Modi's falling popularity on account of not being able to deliver jobs. There is a growing perception that rural distress is increasing, joblessness is growing, Dalits are angry and Muslims are feeling alienated.
2) The desertion of the BJP by allies like Chandrababu Naidu, the open rebellion of the Shiv Sena, and the fall of the Jammu and Kashmir government led by Mehbooba Mufti.
3) The togetherness of Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati and their victories in Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Kairana by-polls have raised the hope that Modi might lose the majority of seats in UP in 2019. And if that happens, then Modi will find it tough to form the government.
There is also a feeling in the JD(U) that since BJP and its alliance partners together had won 32 seats in Bihar in 2014, the regional party will be allocated very few seats. Nitish is demanding that seats for the 2019 general election be distributed according to the 2015 assembly results whereas the BJP wants to use 2014 as the benchmark. But there is a catch - though the JD(U) had more seats in 2015, its vote share was far smaller than that of the BJP: 16.8% to the BJP's 24.4%.
The BJP will also have to solve the issues of other allies like Upendra Kushwaha's party which had won all the three seats it fought in 2014 and Ram Vilas Paswan's party which won six of the seven seats it contested. Neither of them will want to give up seats from their share for Nitish.
Nitish knows that in the context of the SP-BSP alliance in UP, Modi will find it difficult to junk him. If Nitish goes back to Lalu, then the BJP, like in UP, will be the biggest loser. Modi had won 105 seats out of combined 120 seats in UP and Bihar. Lalu-Nitish in Bihar, Akhilesh-Mayawati in UP will be the end of Modi's re-election dream. So Nitish will bargain hard - right now, he has the upper hand.(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.