The JD(U) is at it again. Eight years after Nitish Kumar walked out on the NDA in protest against the BJP’s move to project Narendra Modi as its PM candidate, Bihar’s ruling party has again hailed the chief minister as “PM material”, reigniting a political debate. At its national council meeting in Patna on August 29, the JD(U) passed a unanimous resolution in this regard on a proposal moved by party president Lalan Singh. The party, however, insists Nitish is not at all a claimant to the PM’s post “despite having the capability”. “Our purpose is to dispel confusion on the issue as news reports often claim he is a PM candidate,” JD(U)’s national general secretary K.C. Tyagi sought to clarify after the meeting. “That’s why it has been made clear through the resolution that Nitish is not a claimant to the PM’s post, though he has all the qualities.”
Nitish, for his part, made light of the speculation. “These are useless talks,” the CM says. “I don’t have the desire, or expectation, for such things.” But his party leaders were drumbeating that Nitish is more than capable of leading the country. “How can we stake claim to the prime minister’s post? Ours is a small party, but, yes, as far as the qualities are concerned, Nitish is fit enough to hold the post,” Lalan said after the meeting. “He has a vision. Many schemes such as bicycles for girls, electricity and potable water to each household implemented by him in the past 15 years in Bihar were later introduced by the Centre and other states.”
Vocal senior leaders such as Upendra Kushwaha went a step ahead. “The numbers would not be a problem if such a situation arises (in the future),” he says. In fact, it was Kushwaha who had recently called the Bihar CM “PM material” to revive an old issue, which was believed to have become irrelevant after Nitish chose to quit the Mahagathbandhan and return to the NDA in 2017, accepting Modi’s leadership, which he had once questioned.
Political observers believe that it is a well-calculated, two-pronged strategy by the JD(U). “The JD(U) leaders cannot take the risk of saying it openly because their party is part of the NDA. But it has an indirect message that Nitish can jump the ship if the situation comes to that,” says political commentator and economist Nawal Kishore Choudhary.
Choudhary says JD(U) leaders have been making such statements almost every day and that cannot happen without the CM’s support. “I think Nitish is trying to send a message to the BJP that it should not think he has spent all his options. At the same time, it is also a message to the Opposition that he can leave the NDA if he is given a respectable position. And what can be more respectable than the PM’s post to a leader who has been a Union minister several times apart from being Bihar CM for 15 years?”
The BJP has reacted cautiously. Party spokesman for the state, Nikhil Anand, says: “Every party gives voice to its political ambitions and aspirations about its leader. There is nothing new in it. Our alliance under Nitish Kumar’s leadership is moving towards making Bihar a frontline state. Unlike the RJD, we do not interfere in the other party’s affairs.”
Nonetheless, Nitish’s recent demands for a caste census, probe into the Pegasus episode, and opposition to Uttar Pradesh’s draft population policy have been interpreted as tell-tale signs of friction between the ruling partners.