The lasting legacy of Nitish Kumar and his politics will certainly include this: that he is one of the smartest politicians who deliberately made few 'stupid' mistakes, a politician who successfully swung between two extreme ideological positions and used both to maximum advantage. He has mastered the art of walking on the thin ice and thinking about himself and nobody else. He carries the pretence of secularism and socialism but has had an illegitimate romantic relationship with communal politics. While writing, it is almost clear that he is ready again to ditch the BJP and sign up again for a secular formation; but as Lalu Yadav, who has served as both his friend and foe, says, it's difficult to predict Nitish Kumar's decisions.
For over 20 years, Nitish Kumar has not been comfortable with Narendra Modi and his brand of politics. He decided to break with the BJP when it decideded to project Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate in 2013. In the subsequent assembly elections in 2015, he contested with the RJD led by Lalu Yadav; together, they formed the government which could not complete its term and in 2017, Nitish broke the alliance on flimsy grounds and aligned with PM Modi. But the PM neither forgets nor forgives a slight. In 2019, the BJP needed Nitish Kumar to max out on Bihar's Lok Sabha seats, so it conceded five seats to Nitish which BJP had won in 2014. But Plan B was ready.
To teach Nitish Kumar a lesson for ditching him in 2013, the PM gave him only one cabinet berth in 2019. Nitish Kumar found this humiliating but could do nothing. If he had broken with the BJP at that point, he would have been branded an opportunist. Then the PM struck again - he inducted a close confidante of his from Nitish Kumar's party, RCP Singh, in his Cabinet. Nitish Kumar felt betrayed by RCP Singh but he waited. When RCP Singh's Rajya Sabha term ended recently, Nitish Kumar ensured there was no extension.
But this was hardly a win. The plan to damage him permanently, weaken his bargaining power vis-a-vis the BJP, and subsequently finish him as a politician so that the BJP can form its government on its own in the future had been put into motion. Nitish Kumar knew this even as the leadership of both parties claimed that the alliance would continue in 2024 for the general election and then for the Bihar assembly election in 2025.
Bihar is the only Hindi-speaking state where the BJP has never formed a government on its own. Despite getting 74 of a total of 243 seats in the general election last year, it had to accept Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister despite his getting only 43 seats. In terms of seats and vote percentage, the JDU was third in the pecking order. It was clear that Nitish Kumar was losing his home ground.
After the death of Ram Vilas Paswan, the BJP engineered a split in his Lok Jan Shakti Party, isolated his son Chirag Paswan, and later used him to weaken Nitish Kumar. Chirag Paswan attacked Nitish Kumar and placed his candidates against the JDU's so that the BJP gained a big advantage. Chirag Paswan was naive enough to think he would be rewarded handsomely later but he got nothing. Nitish Kumar witnessed this helplessly. Local BJP leaders mocked him. But his consolation was that the BJP had no leader to pit against him for the top job. He knew that BJP had no leader to run the government if BJP decided. He was also sure that BJP could not form government on its own. They needed him. After the polls, all this came true. But Nitish Kumar knew that his appointment as Chief Minister was a temporary truce.
So why has Nitish Kumar decided to bite the bullet now? There are three main reasons:
- Tejashwi Yadav, son of Lalu Yadav, is ready to ally again with Nitish Kumar who accused him of corruption in their previous shared government. Lalu Yadav has reportedly persuaded Tejashwi Yadav that working again with Nitish Kumar is needed. But it is Tejashwi Yadav who has more seats than Nitish Kumar. So that could impact their negotiations.
- The Maharashtra model of defection has scared Nitish Kumar. He knows the BJP has found Bihar's Eknath Shinde in RCP Singh. But Nitish Kumar is a sharper politician than Uddhav Thackeray and Eknath Shinde was smarter than RCP Singh. So before RCP Singh could move to instigate a JDU revolt against him, Nitish Kumar publicly accused him of corruption. RCP Singh has resigned from the party; this makes him a pariah for the party's potential defectors.
- Nitish Kumar has never been able to get over his Prime Ministerial aspirations. The Opposition is in disarray, Mamata Banerjee is engulfed with a corruption scandal and he feels that he can be its main man for 2024.
But as Lalu Yadav has always warned, there's no telling with Nitish Kumar. So his next step may yet be a surprise.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.