It was the Olympic Gold of political somersaults and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar seemed to manage a perfect landing right next to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for years his main rival.
When they delivered the ultimate kiss-and-make-up in July, announcing a new alliance within an hour of Nitish dumping Lalu Yadav and the Congress, it was clear that the entire event had been carefully stage-managed. Yet, months later, both sides appear to be holding good to some sort of pledge to secrecy that allows them to keep face with their voters and workers on why and how they bridged the gap, given their public and repeated taunts of each other.
The mystery allows stake-holders and columnists to juice it. Opinions are expressed regularly on how Nitish is regretting the reconciliation, especially given the fact that despite joining the NDA, his party was given no cabinet ministers in the recent reshuffle. Nitish will have to accept that he has been bested by BJP chief Amit Shah, many say, and stick to being second and somewhat plaintive fiddle in a state that has given him three consecutive terms.
Those in Bihar who work closely with the Chief Minister however say it would be foolish to believe that his naivety has been exposed. After all, they say, even a political as wily as Lalu Yadav had no clue that the break up was imminent. Lalu was expecting, at worst, his son Tejashwi to be sacked as Deputy Chief Minister after being named in a corruption case by the CBI. So when Nitish phoned him on July 26 to disclose that he was headed to meet the Governor to resign, Lalu was stumped. He was prepared for his son, not the entries government, to be sacked.
In disbelief, Lalu offered the suggestion of a meeting with lawmakers from his party and Nitish's to wrestle the crisis. It was only when PM Modi tweeted his support to Nitish that it really sunk in. By that time, barely an hour after the phone call, a caterer was delivering 300 meals to Nitish's home. Normally, when Nitish's party meets, barely 100 plates are prepared. The large order made it clear that the BJP's members would be heading over to the Chief Minister's home - a working dinner to establish the new government they would form together.
To understand the complexities involved in their new alliance, one has to understand why the Maha-Gathbandhan or the old one failed. Lalu, who had the most legislators, felt that even though Nitish was Chief Minister, it was he would call the shots. He operated as a parallel power centre and his insistence on his favourite officers being posted at key places virtually stalled assignments. As a result of the stalemate between Nitish and him over this, several bureaucrats continued in their roles despite completing their three-year tenure.
Nitish was also livid with what was seen as Lalu's blanket blessing to some from his party and others who were involved with illegal sand mining and bootlegged liquor. On one hand, Nitish declared prohibition as the centre stone of his administration; on the other, Lalu at his home would openly mock the ban on alcohol.
Lalu's sons would often skip key events including those organised by their own ministries. Nitish would show up; they wouldn't. It was a gesture of defiance to show they took their orders not from him but their father.
The final straw came in the news that a member of parliament from Lalu's party had reportedly met with Finance Minister Arun Jaitely and sought help in the corruption cases against Lalu, allegedly offering to "handle Nitish" in exchange for the favour.
If Lalu were ready to cut a deal, Nitish could beat him to it. It had been in the works in any case. On a flight returning from Agartala in December 2014, the PM, according to sources, said to cabinet colleagues that Nitish's loss was a big one. When Nitish announced prohibition, Amit Shah told reporters he was traveling with on a plane to Guwahati that it was a welcome move. On surgical strikes, firm action against Pakistan and then demonetisation, Nitish enthusiastically backed the PM. And he was quick to embrace the choice of then Bihar Governor Ramnath Kovind as the NDA's candidate for President.
As Lalu became more blatant about exercising his power, Nitish worried that his core voters of non -Yadav backward castes and extreme backward castes and mahadalits would desert him because of the growing clout of Lalu's Yadav supporters. It made sense to end the partnership with the pretext of a corruption case.
The fact that the centre was quick to steady nerves after a nearly three billion dollar deal for a General Electric factory in Bihar which appeared to be faltering is seen by Nitish's aides as a sign that he commands the attention of the BJP which will not risk alienating him a second time.
But that doesn't mean the BJP will not be aggressive in Bihar about expanding its own influence and reach as direct competition for Nitish and his party. Amit Shah is due to visit Bihar next month after two recently cancelled trips. The BJP knows that while Nitish enjoys public goodwill especially on account of clean governance, his party lacks organisation especially at the grassroots level, a characteristic strength of the BJP. It will show no favour to Nitish and will move to exploit his weakness.
BJP ministers who now work in Nitish's government say it would be tough for their party to find a leader who can run directly against him in Bihar. They also acknowledge his zeal for long hours. While this makes for a comfortable team on the face of it, both sides will watch their back as the general election nears when they will confront the tricky issue of dividing seats.(Manish Kumar is Executive Editor at NDTV)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.
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