Bihar is a hyper-political state but likes its leaders part-jester part-dabang (strong man). Nitish Kumar, 71, likes to believe he has positioned himself as a serious politician despite the fact that he party-hops routinely in search of partners. Today, he is swapping the BJP for an older flame, Tejashwi Yadav. All in dead seriousness.
Dumping the BJP for the second time in five years, Nitish Kumar wants to demonstrate that he rules his Janata Dal United (JDU) and Bihar with an iron hand and doesn't suffer any other claimant for power.
From 2015 to 2017, he was partners with the Congress and Tejashwi Yadav who heads the RJD. That alliance included the Congress and Nitish Kumar walked out of it into the open arms of the BJP after accusing Tejashwi Yadav of corruption.
Nitish Kumar was on the BJP's national team for decades. But he has over the last decade been promiscuous about partners as long as he remains ensconced as Chief Minister. Despite the bitterness with Tejashwi Yadav, who used to refer to him as "paltu chacha" (turncoat uncle), Nitish Kumar has managed to build bridges with the younger politician in the hope that he will be sworn in as Chief Minister for the eighth time in 22 years in Bihar. If he pulls it off, it'll be quite the feat: he has fewer seats (43) than the BJP (74) or Tejashwi Yadav (80).
Tejashwi Yadav may allow this because it gives him a chance to return to power with a prize caste combo. The RJD has a lock on the 14.4 percent of Yadav vote and the 17 percent Muslim vote in Bihar, and Nitish Kumar brings in the ati pichdas (most backward) voters. Kumar is from the Kurmi caste which, at four percent, is not electorally significant.
Tejashwi Yadav recently co-opted four of the five MLAs of Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM in June. Owaisi has long been accused by his detractors of playing as the BJP's "B-Team" and all the regional parties in Bihar are unanimous on not allowing Owaisi to grow in Bihar.
Nitish Kumar had been signalling his anger BJP for a while now. He delivered public snubs on the new Agneepath army recruitment scheme. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah remained cold. Nitish Kumar then refused to show up for a Niti Aayog meeting this week and also boycotted the PM's dinner for President Droupadi Murmu. Nitish Kumar's public slug-fest with former close aide RCP Singh who was denied a Rajya Sabha seat and forced to leave the union cabinet was actually shadow boxing with PM Modi and Amit Shah.
Fearful of the BJP's hegemonic growth at the expense of allies, Nitish Kumar dialled Sonia Gandhi after the collapse of the Uddhav Thackeray government in June. Sources say Sonia Gandhi was receptive to Nitish Kumar's concerns and nudged along the patch-up along with the Yadav family. Sonia Gandhi also spoke to Lalu Yadav who counselled son Tejashwi to let bygones be bygones.
Once Tejashwi was on board, the new Team Nitish was a go. The parties will virtually have the same power share as the last time they teamed up together. Kumar will continue as Chief Minister.
From being a rare heartland leader who publicly made much of his inner voice and conscience, Nitish Kumar is now derided as Kursi Kumar (Chair-hungry Kumar) but he still holds fast to his tenderly-nursed, decades-old wish to be Prime Minister. With his return to the Opposition and Mamata Banerjee's recent image problems of corruption with Partha Chatterjee being caught with truckloads of cash, Nitish Kumar senses opportunity.
I spoke to a leader very close to Nitish Kumar; he said "Nitish babu North India mein acceptable hain. Pawar aur Banerjee koh unhe maanna chahiye" (Nitish Kumar is acceptable to all of North India. Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee should accept that".)
A swearing-in with new partners is on the cards and so is floating new ambitions. Nitish Kumar in a nutshell.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.