Nitish Kumar is about to hold his Monday janata durbar, a weekly interaction in which he meets common people at his residence—1, Anne Marg, Patna—to tend to their grievances. From his composure, no one could have guessed the Bihar chief minister was nursing a grievance too—a terminal one. Just before the programme begins, a top state BJP minister arrives on the scene, and asks for an audience. It’s granted, and they retreat to one of the inner rooms. Behind closed doors, the BJP leader says: “Sir, if you think some knots have developed in the alliance, I am here to iron out all differences, please share if you have anything in mind.” Later that evening, the diplomatic outreach is scaled up to Code Orange levels. Union home minister Amit Shah is on the line with Nitish, one of the BJP’s oldest allies, and is at his mollificatory best during the six-minute call. It was a last-ditch attempt to save the game as it had been chalked out—and the desperation was understandable. The BJP-led coalition that rules at the Centre had just rearranged India’s political chessboard to its advantage, winning over Maharashtra. But now, another NDA government was at stakeand the chessboard seemed open again.
By August 10, Nitish Kumar, by now back at the helm of the grand coalition with the RJD-Congress-Left that he had walked out on in 2017, was throwing down the gauntlet to none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his ally till two days ago. “He won in 2014; whether he will be able to continue after 2024 is something for him to assess,” Nitish said at a brief interaction with the media. Even if he subsequently brushed aside a question on whether he himself would be a candidate for prime ministership, this was a rare bit of bravado for Nitish, known for his innate caution with words. But the math is easy to tot up. Bihar comes in only after Uttar Pradesh in terms of being a core heartland state—and its 40 Lok Sabha seats are the fourth highest bloc for any state, after UP’s 80, only Maharashtra (48) and West Bengal (42) come above it. So the way it has turned colour puts some unexpected new verve into an otherwise comatose Opposition camp.
Bihar is also the state that inaugurated ‘mahagathbandhan’ politics in 2015, which was to offer one of the sternest challenges to the BJP in the Modi era. Realising that the only way to stop the BJP juggernaut was to pool together all anti-BJP votes rather than have them fragmented across parties, the JD(U) had mended fences with the RJD after two decades and pulled in the Congress. Result: the grand alliance set in motion some great synergy, winning a mammoth 178 seats out of the total 243. The mahagathbandhan model was to fray gradually, as it didn’t work out as well elsewhere in India—but in Bihar, the reasons for the synergy still exist as the RJD and JD(U) command support from complementary social blocs and are, crucially, in unison on pending policies like a caste census. In short, even if Lok Sabha elections go differently from assembly patterns, the BJP has landed itself an unforeseen new threat in the run-up to 2024.
It perhaps sensed the threat a little too late in the day. The state of play must have become clear at least by August 7, when JD(U) president Rajiv Ranjan Singh held a press conference where he minced no words. He spoke openly about two hostile acts against the JD(U) by its alliance partner. One dated back to the November 2020 assembly election, and related to how LJP leader Chirag Paswan was used as a vote-cutter by the BJP. The other was mint-fresh: the threat from R.C.P. Singh, former JD(U) president who had joined the Union cabinet against Nitish’s wishes in July 2021, and quit the party on August 6, calling it a “sinking ship” (see Why Nitish Quit the NDA). The BJP had been bullish till that point. Only a week before, it had organised a high-profile national executive of its frontal organisations in Patna. Both Amit Shah and party chief J.P. Nadda were there; the latter even made a strong remark against ‘regional parties’ that stuck in the craw of JD(U) leaders. That frantic attempts at a détente followed soon after Rajiv Ranjan’s presser only underlined how ill-prepared it was for this eventuality. Either its political antennae had become rusted, or it was hubris. Anyway, what followed was a shock.
No inkling of it was visible on Nitish’s face during that brief pow-wow before the janata durbar even though, uncharacteristically, he kept up an unsmiling visage as he responded to the BJP minister. He only shared his pain about RCP’s “betrayal”, says a top source. Not a word emanated from him against the BJP. But he had steeled his resolve by then. Even Shah failed to convince Nitish later in the evening, despite assuring him that he would stay undisturbed as the NDA leader in the state. Those who know Nitish well had long read the signals: he was methodically working towards life without the BJP—or after the BJP. Only the saffron party had failed to read his lips in time. On August 9, Nitish first resigned as a CM after a meeting with party legislators, and then staked claim to form an alternative government with the support of seven parties, including Tejashwi Yadav’s RJD, the Congress and others—a total strength of 164 MLAs. On August 10, Nitish, already the longest serving chief minister of Bihar, was sworn in once again for a record eighth time—this time threatening to alter political equations beyond his state.
Cause for Divorce
In November 2020, as he recalled in his meeting with JD(U) MLAs on August 9, Nitish had been unwilling to take over as CM. After all, the JD(U) could win only 43 seats—down from 71 in 2015—and the BJP had emerged as the ‘Big Brother’ with 74. More than that, he suspected this scenario was brought about by a deliberate act of undermining by his partner—Chirag Paswan’s LJP, contesting independently outside the NDA, was widely perceived to have been fielded by the BJP strategically to subvert the JD(U)’s chances, and its presence ensured the defeat of at least 25 JD(U) candidates. Even after Nitish was persuaded to give up his reluctance by the BJP national leadership, the tension in the alliance never eased up. For one, there was the constant criticism of his government by BJP leaders—even state president Sanjay Jaiswal consistently kept up hostile Facebook posts and public utterances, with no central leader taking the trouble to shush him. If that was not enough to convince Nitish that all this was by design rather than accident, there came a more grave trigger: in the shape of alleged attempts to poach JD(U) MLAs. The BJP stoutly denies these allegations, with former deputy CM and long-time Nitish partner Sushil Modi calling them “sheer lies”. But JD(U) sources say RCP was making concerted attempts to wean away party legislators at the behest of the saffron party. “Inputs started trickling in about RCP reaching out to JD(U) MLAs shortly after he joined the Union cabinet in July 2021. Nitish was alert, and that’s why RCP was denied a Rajya Sabha berth this May. This was perhaps when RCP dropped caution and started calling more MLAs,” a senior JD(U) leader told India Today.
A number of JD(U) MLAs are believed to have submitted audio recordings of phone calls, including WhatsApp calls, that were made to them with promises of cabinet berths and other allurements as a quid pro quo for switching sides. Nitish also hinted at this on August 9 when, without taking RCP’s name, he spoke intriguingly about receiving “soochnayein” (feedback) and how a man he had helped go places was now taking his “training” elsewhere. The JD(U) brains trust read the moves as advance warnings of an Eknath Shinde-type operation in the offing. It was not to be taken lightly. RCP, a former IAS officer whom Nitish had handpicked as his principal secretary after taking over as CM in 2005 and then sent to the Rajya Sabha in 2010 and 2016, ticked all the boxes. After the 2020 assembly polls, Nitish had made him the JD(U) national president, and he apparently used his position to get close to the BJP—thus securing a cabinet berth in July 2021. When Nitish denied him a third term in the Rajya Sabha, he was forced to resign from the Modi cabinet last month. But signs of greater ambition were soon in plain sight—of late, his supporters had even taken to raising slogans like ‘Bihar ka CM kaisa ho, RCP Singh jaisa ho’ (Bihar needs a CM like RCP). The caste box had a tick too: like Nitish, RCP was a Kurmi.
The BJP’s own desire for growth was never a secret. Sushil Modi and Nand Kishore Yadav, men who exemplified the pacifist partnership of old, had been shunted out. Nitish had no one in the BJP to turn to. Shah confidant Bhikhubhai Dalsaniya, a Gujarati pracharak, was made the state unit’s general secretary (organisation)—something Nitish read as a sign of greater control from Delhi. And the new deputy CMs were lightweights: Tarkishore Prasad did make some efforts at dialogue, but Renu Devi just did not have the matching stature or wavelength to engage with Nitish. As for Jaiswal and Speaker Vijay Kumar Sinha, they typified the new aggression. The predatory approach was on show in March, as the BJP poached all three MLAs of Vikassheel Insaan Party to temporarily become the single largest party, with 77 MLAs in the assembly. (Tejashwi inducted four AIMIM MLAs in June to become No. 1 again.) In June came the Maharashtra episode. More straws in the wind floated in on July 27, when West Bengal police caught three Jharkhand MLAs with Rs 49.37 lakh cash—and talk of a botched ‘Operation Lotus’ filled the air. Finally, during the two-day joint national executive on July 30-31, Nadda chose Patna as the venue to declare that regional parties would be finished in times to come. Though several BJP leaders sought to clarify that Nadda’s statement was aimed at regional parties run by political families, there had already been enough red flags for Nitish not to pay heed.
Bihar BJP chieftains stage a dharna in Patna, August 10; (ANI Photo)
He had to act swiftly. And on two fronts: one, to assess and quell any potential intra-party rebellion; and two, to work out an alternative government, taking the RJD with him. JD(U) sources say Nitish, a man of meticulous strategy, put things in motion quietly right after the Jharkhand MLA arrests in Bengal. “Both Nitish and Rajiv Ranjan individually spoke to the MLAs to assess their mindset. Once it was clear that nobody had fallen for the allurements, Nitish moved in for the kill,” says a party leader.
The smoothness with which the other task was accomplished also belied its complexity. Tejashwi had to be on the same page. The two leaders had been at loggerheads since July 2017, when Nitish dumped the mahagathbandhan, but he had been working, presciently enough, on melting the ice all through 2022. On April 22, he had dropped in at an iftar at Rabri Devi’s residence, and Tejashwi reciprocated by visiting a JD(U) iftar on April 28—with the warm vibes being demonstrated as the CM walked the RJD scion to his vehicle to see him off. On May 11, the two had a one-on-one meeting at the CM’s residence. And in July, when RJD patriarch Lalu Yadav turned critically ill, Nitish visited the ICU of a private hospital and had the state government arrange an air ambulance to shift Lalu to AIIMS, Delhi, where he recovered. Top JD(U) sources admit to other off-the-record meetings with Tejashwi too—including one close to D-Day, on August 5, where all details were discussed.
Nitish being sworn in as Bihar CM for a record eighth time
Win-Win for RJD
The events have come as an unsolicited blessing for Tejashwi. His party had drawn a blank in the 2019 general election. At the helm of Bihar’s single largest party and in power now, he can make serious amends in 2024. The CVoter snap poll on August 9, in fact, found him gaining in the state and in Lok Sabha terms. Being with Nitish can burnish his credentials, building a brand for him independent of that of his father. Anyway, Tejashwi has added several inches to his stature since 2015, when he debuted as a greenhorn deputy CM. Expected to resume that role, he’s likely to be very influential in the new set-up—his image bolstered by the unstated expectation that Nitish may eventually pass on the baton to him, if he plays his cards wisely. The new regime has a comfortable majority of 164 in the 243-seat assembly—JD(U) 45, RJD 79, Congress 19, CPI(ML) 12, HAM (Secular) 4, CPI(M) 2, CPI 2, Independent 1.
For now, the BJP is calling Nitish’s act a betrayal of the 2020 mandate. “That mandate was for PM Modi’s leadership. It was his appeal that pulled in voters. Not Nitish. The BJP made him CM keeping Bihar in mind, he has ditched the alliance keeping his own interest in front,” says Union minister Giriraj Singh. But the party will be left with just 77 MLAs and may become the solitary one in the opposition. Not the ideal place from which to launch its 2024 campaign. The stakes are very high—with Nitish on its side, the NDA had swept 39 out of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. With the RJD’s 30 per cent Muslim-Yadav vote linking up with Nitish’s cohort of EBCs and Mahadalits, it will trigger unpleasant memories of 2015 for the saffron party, when it was reduced to 53 seats in the assembly. It will be no pushover, though. On its own, the BJP has been going from strength to strength in Bihar: its 2020 tally of 74 (out of 110 contested) meant a much higher success rate and vote percentage (42.56) than the RJD’s. Even in 2014, the NDA—without the JD(U)—had bagged 31 seats. That’s why some in the BJP call the divorce a blessing in disguise for the long term—they say their cadre now span almost all 40 seats and claim Nitish is no longer the vote-catcher he used to be. “It’s time we expanded our base and became atmanirbhar,” says a Bihar BJP leader.
But even if the party is downplaying the potential impact of Nitish’s exit on 2024, the fact is that it’s a big setback. First, it puts a question mark on the BJP’s capacity to carry along its partners: in the past eight years, the NDA has lost the PDP, the Akali Dal, the TDP and the Shiv Sena, to name only the big exits. Bihar is also pivotal for reasons beyond mere accumulation of seats—the state can host an alternative politics. The BJP will be watching the state’s caste census with caution and trepidation; the first draft is expected by February 2023. The exercise naturally goes in favour of caste-based parties like the RJD-JD(U), but it can also stir up OBC politics across India. Overall, the BJP has been attentive to OBC representation, but its default mode is a ‘universal’ Hindu vote and thus set against Mandal politics. In Bihar, it was forced to support the caste survey, but it will be wary of the demand going national. It will also be watching how the new regime delivers on opening up government jobs for youth and switching back to the pension system instead of NPS for government employees. Crucially, it will be watching any footsteps Nitish makes out of Bihar—many Opposition leaders see him as a potential unifying candidate to take on Modi in 2024.
What Bihar Thinks
On August 9, the day Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar left the BJP-led NDA and joined hands with old partners RJD and Congress to form a new government, CVoter conducted a snap poll for India Today among 2,479 respondents in Bihar to assess the public mood on the changed political dynamics in the state and its potential impact on national politics. Both Nitish and Tejashwi Yadav registered gains.
Graphics by Tanmoy Chakraborty