There is nothing official about it yet but the countdown to the enigmatic Nitish Kumar's exit from the axis of the opposition to the BJP is progressing rapidly.
The Congress is still trying to figure out with its current bumbling excuse for leadership what exactly made Kumar decide to back the BJP in the election for President. He, on the other hand, is clear on his agenda.
I spoke to a large number of JDU leaders and Kumar's aides and they say the prime reason is the Bihar Chief Minister's disappointment at the lack of political understanding displayed by the Congress' leadership. This is evident in his sharpest attack on the party where he said that "The Congress alone is to blame for the opposition mess". He made the remarks at a state executive meeting of his party on Sunday.
Escalating his attack, Kumar added "It is because of the Congress that we could not have an alliance in UP, it is because of the Congress that we could not have an alliance in Assam. They did not take us into confidence on the presidential polls as well". An angry Kumar added an unmistakably hostile put-down to senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad's "Some people have different ideologies" remark by declaring, "I don't follow anyone. I follow my polices". A senior JDU leader told me that the meeting had been specially called to convey Kumar's public anger and disenchantment with the Congress which is a junior partner in his government in Bihar.
Kumar is trying to avoid the prospect of being reduced to a nowhere man if the opposition continues to weakly flutter as it has so far against a resurgent BJP and Modi in the general election due in 2019. Last time around, Kumar's JDU won just two of Bihar's 40 Lok Sabha seats. He fears that he will be reduced to a cipher if the opposition continues its current shambolic run.
Kumar prides himself on "sushaasan" (good governance) and feels hobbled during this tenure of his government by Lalu Yadav exerting his larger-than-life persona in an attempt to remote control the government. Lalu's baby-sitting of his two sons, Tejashwi and Tej Pratap, who are both ministers in Bihar, has also been a huge irritant to Kumar. Incredibly, files of their ministries are sometimes "seen" by Prasad, say sources. The spate of serial corruption cases against the Yadav clan has upset Kumar no end as he feels that his "clean" image, something he takes great pride in, is being irretrievably sullied by association.
"The alliance may last a couple of months but Kumar has made up his mind. He does not want to be seen arrayed on the side of tainted politicians. The BJP is ready to step in. He knows them well having had a 17-year-long association with them. If not nationally, allying with the BJP in the state will ensure that he still has a space in Bihar," said one of Kumar's closest aides who asked not to be named.
In Patna, RJD and Congress leaders have publicly started saying that "Nitish Kumar doh naon mein savar nahi hoh saktey (Nitish Kumar cannot ride in two boats at the same time)".
Kumar has always been a loner and an extremely rare heartland politician who functions without a coterie and an entourage. Currently, he blames the Congress for the "virtual walkover" Modi is getting in national politics. "Congress calls itself a national party and tries to bully the opposition but where do they have any status for such pretense? They don't even want to work hard. We had stopped Modi in Bihar, they made him larger then life by giving him victory on a platter in Assam. It was a matter of sharing (just) 20 seats with the Asom Gana Parishad and accommodating Himanta Biswa Sarma. Not only did Rahul Gandhi insult him into defecting but he then offered the AGP 25 seats and swung Assam for them." says a senior JDU leader.
Kumar, like Modi, is a 24/7 politician who lives and breathes politics. He works until midnight at his camp office, clearing files in the Chief Minister's residence. Kumar simply cannot understand the Rahul Gandhi style of 9-to-5 politics and his habit of taking (mainly foreign) breaks every two months. Kumar has not had a holiday in 20 years, remarks a close aide, laughing.
Kumar feels that if an opposition alliance has to happen (of which he was the original votary) to take on a hugely-popular Modi, it has to be on an "equitable basis". "The days of the Congress lording it over the opposition have gone but they are still to realize it," he reportedly commented recently. "Forget opposition unity, with its current behaviour and attitude, the Congress is the most valued ally of Modi" Kumar is said to have commented bitingly.
Kumar supported demonetisation because he saw the political consequences of opposing it. For this, he was targeted by the Congress. They have become irrelevant by blindly opposing everything Modi does. From being in the mainstream, they, the Congress, have become fringe. That is the real tragedy of our opposition is the underlying Kumar view as paraphrased by an aide.
To take on Modi, the opposition needs to come together with a clear agenda, not just wholesale opposition for the sake of it, as displayed by the Congress in the midnight session to pass GST (attended by JDU, SP, NCP).
Kumar wants to be part of the mainstream, either in the opposition, or as an ally of the ruling party. As a long-time politician, he is single-minded about the pursuit of power.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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.