The ouster of BJP governments from three key Hindi heartland states—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh—in the recent assembly polls may have come as a shot in the arm for the RJD-led grand alliance in Bihar, but Chief Minister Nitish Kumar does not appear to be unduly perturbed.
“The BJP may have lost in MP, but it got more votes than the Congress and in Rajasthan, its voteshare was a meagre 0.4 per cent less than the winning party,” Nitish said at his Lok Samwad programme on January 7.
Nor does he attach much significance to a resurgent Opposition alliance in Bihar, which now consists of the RJD, Congress, Upendra Kushwaha’s RLSP, Jitanram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha-Secular, Sharad Yadav’s Loktantrik Janata Dal and emerging Mallah leader Mukesh Sahni’s newly floated Vikashsheel Insaan Party. Besides, the Left parties are also likely to forge a pre-poll alliance with the mahagathbandhan. “It only underlines the dwindling self-confidence of the RJD, which is forging an alliance with just about any outfit,” says Nitish. “But people will vote only on the basis of the work.”
Nitish is confident that the formidable BJP-JD(U) combination (along with Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP), will have a smooth run in the parliamentary polls because of the sushashan (good governance) provided by his government. “We have been with the BJP since 1996, except for three-four years,” the JD(U) president says. “We have differed on issues but on inclusive development of Bihar, we are on a common ground.”
It’s ostensibly because of Nitish’s track-record as an able administrator that the BJP top brass did not demur before agreeing to an equal number of seats (17 each) with the JD(U) under a pre-poll pact for the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar. Many considered it to be a major climbdown for the saffron party, but it wasn’t without a reason.
In the last LS polls, the BJP had contested from 30 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar, leaving seven and three seats for its allies, the LJP and the RLSP. Nitish had contested the polls in alliance with the CPI, less than a year after snapping his 17-year-old alliance with the BJP over the projection of Narendra Modi as the PM candidate.
The BJP subsequently won 22 seats, while Nitish’s JD(U) was reduced to two seats. And yet, four years later, the BJP has no qualms in offering 17 seats to Nitish (who returned to the NDA fold in 2017). Under the seat-sharing pact, the LJP has been given the remaining six seats; the RLSP has left the NDA and joined the Opposition. Ever since the NDA ousted the RJD from power in November 2005, the BJP-JD(U) combine has proved to be unbeatable in assembly polls. And Nitish has been projected as its Vikas Purush (development man), a veritably progressive, honest face who rakes in the votes.
After the Congress joined Laloo in the ’90s, the BJP had emerged as the main opposition party by default, but could not dislodge the RJD regime until it declared Nitish as the NDA’s CM candidate before the November 2005 polls.
In fact, the BJP accepted Nitish, then in Samata Party, a BJP ally, as the NDA’s leader in 2000, despite having more MLAs than Samata (which later merged into JD-U), in the Bihar assembly. At the time, Nitish had headed an NDA government for a week, but failed to prove his majority. Still, the BJP kept on backing Nitish, regarding him as the best bet to take on Laloo in a caste-conscious state. Its unflinching trust in the Nalanda strongman paid off in 2005.
Since then, Nitish has always been the NDA’s face in Bihar. It would be no different this time. Does he have it in him to help his alliance retain its 31 seats, given the way his opponents are uniting? The JD(U) has no doubt about it. “His USP is that whichever alliance he is in, wins the polls, and the BJP and RJD are aware of it,” says a party leader.
Nitish’s reputation as the most credible leader in Bihar was cemented when he led the JD (U)-RJD-Congress mahagathbandhan to a thumping victory in the 2015 assembly polls. Back in the NDA, 2019 may be another litmus test for the Nalanda strongman to seal his reputation beyond doubt.