April 06, 2020
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Diseased Dissidence

Nitish Kumar finds himself in a tight spot as the Samata splits

Diseased Dissidence
The Samata Party has formally split. Despite the last-minute patch-up efforts of Union minister of state for railways and Samata leader Digvijay Singh, the rebel faction led by Reghunath Jha decided to part ways. The rebels held a separate state election council meeting in Patna on January 5 which was attended by six of the 11 MPs Samata has. Jha was of course one of them. This, it seems, is just the beginning. Its 29-member state legislature party in Bihar is also headed for a split.

In the run-up to the split, senior Samata Party leader Nitish Kumar had even submitted his resignation from the Union cabinet to pressure the dissenters to back down. But this was in vain. Rebellion broke out in the party because of Nitish's style of functioning and his efforts to effect the Sharad Yadav-led Janata Dal (U)'s merger with the Samata. In fact, that's one reason why Ram Vilas Paswan, who recently came out of jd(u) after his differences with Yadav, has announced his support for the Samata rebels. Another sore point with the rebels is the presidentship of the Bihar unit of the party. They wanted Jha re-elected, while Nitish strongly opposed this. It is now clear that should any rapprochement be effected by George Fernandes, Nitish will have to climb down.

d, the rebels seem to have great faith in Fernandes and even have his tacit support. Rebel leader Jha told Outlook as much after being chosen as the new state president by the rebel faction. According to him, the split happened because of Nitish's autocratic style of functioning and stubbornness. Says he: "Now, everything depends on our leader George Fernandes and party president Jaya Jaitly. Now they've to decide on the issue but our decision is final. We'll not compromise, at least, on the issue of state party presidentship." When asked about the possibility of a patch-up, Jha replied: "Yes of course, there is still some scope and we're ready for any respectable compromise worked out by our leader Fernandes."

Though railway minister Singh vehemently denies that Fernandes is in league with the rebels, the question on everyone's mind is whose side will the defence minister take.

Nitish, meanwhile, is his cool self and seems in no mood for a compromise. He dubs the rebellion by Jha and other MPs as a "farce" and a game of "blackmail" for political gain. Says he: "It's all bakwaas and I'm not going to succumb to their blackmail. It's up to Fernandes to settle the score."

When asked about his resignation from the Union cabinet, he explained: "The reason why I resigned was that I had become fed up with all these developments within the party and they made it sound as if it was all because of them that I've become a minister so I thought it proper to resign and then hold the state election council meeting. It was not a pressure tactic."

Political analysts, however, feel that the resignation drama was Nitish's move to kill two birds with one stone. Says a party insider: "Through this resignation he tried to salvage his political image which has lately been on the decline because of his failure in the paddy procurement muddle. Things were not going well for him in the agriculture ministry. At the same time, he was expressing displeasure at the manner in which Fernandes was acting on the merger issue and covertly siding with the rebels." Nitish Kumar dismisses all this as speculations.

The divide within the Samata Party will have major political implications in Bihar. The big question is, should Fernandes work out a peace package with the rebels, then where does it leave Nitish? Going by his current mood, it is highly unlikely that the latter will eat humble pie. As for the rebels, they have been vocal in expressing their faith in Fernandes and president Jaya Jaitly. They have also expressed their support for Samata's ideology.

The ball now is very much in George Fernandes' court.

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