National

Will Nitish Kumar Make Tejashwi Bihar CM, And Lead Opposition In 2024 General Elections?

The BJP calls him a rank opportunist, but Nitish Kumar looks undeterred, as speculations about him being a challenger to PM Narendra Modi for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls fly thick and fast

Will Nitish Kumar Make Tejashwi Bihar CM, And Lead Opposition In 2024 General Elections?
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Nitish Kumar has resigned as the Chief Minister of Bihar to become the Chief Minister of Bihar… this was one of the many memes that flooded social media on the day the Janata Dal-United stalwart pulled the plug on his sweet-today-sour-tomorrow alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and hopped on to the Mahagathbandhan bandwagon once again.

Much like the British truism, ‘The King is dead, long live the King’, Nitish shed one avatar to get into the skin of another by pulling off a self-orchestrated change of guard in his home state that did not really surprise his friends or foes, who probably saw it coming. Nitish had had few peers in political somersaults over the years. He has changed his alliances, shifted his ideological goalposts, and yet come out unscathed with consummate ease. This time it was no different.

Since breaking off with BJP earlier this month, Nitish has formed a new government for the eighth time, picked ministers of his choice and is going about his business as usual with his oft-quoted resolve about Bihar’s development on his lips. The only perceptible difference is that the deputies sitting by his side during the Cabinet meetings will be different. Instead of the BJP’s men from the saffron brigade, he will now have the flagbearers of a secular-socialist coalition consisting of RJD, Congress and a few alliance hoppers, who have united for a common cause, thanks to an opportunity provided by Nitish through the politics of necessity, if not compulsion. But then, as Nitish’s track record shows, allies change, not its leader at the helm.

It may all seem to be a seamless exercise on the face of it, but it has not been that easy for Nitish’s trapeze act, straddling the two extremes of alliance partners that he has chosen to change almost at will. On the one side, he had the option to stay back with an old partner that professes its commitment to Hindutva politics and, on the other, he had the choice to join hands with a different partner that has battled multiple corruption charges for years. Someone known for reading the situation like few of his contemporaries, he has taken a call to do what suits him the most.

Since breaking off with the BJP, Nitish formed a new government for the eighth time, and is going about with his oft-quoted resolve about Bihar’s development on his lips.

Yet, anyone keeping tabs on what’s been happening in Bihar since the November 2020 assembly elections, would know something was cooking behind the scenes. The JD(U)-BJP marriage of mutual convenience always appeared to be on the rocks, ever since Nitish’s party was reduced to the third position behind the RJD and the BJP in the state legislative assembly. It had prompted BJP to assert its authority as the ‘big brother’, a status enjoyed by JD(U) in the past. The BJP gave its partner another blow by engineering a coup in the JD(U)’s Arunachal Pradesh unit, by getting its six MLAs to defect to its camp within two months of winning the Bihar polls together as allies. Since then, Nitish and state BJP leaders have had no love lost between them and have often clashed over their diametrically opposite views on issues like caste census, special category status for Bihar, prohibition, population policy and the state’s law and order situation. Nitish was also unhappy over the BJP’s decision to side-line its veteran leaders such as Sushil Kumar Modi, Nandkishor Yadav and Prem Kumar, ministers of Nitish’s cabinet in his previous terms with whom he shared a great rapport. Worse still, his relationship with the new set of Bihar BJP leaders was marked by mutual distrust. The RCP Singh episode proved to be the last straw.

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After the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when the BJP offered only one ministerial berth to Nitish instead of the four demanded by the JD(U) (it had won 16 seats), he opted out. Since the Narendra Modi-led BJP had won a majority on its own, with 303 seats, in the Lok Sabha, the party had decided to give only one berth each to all its allies, regardless of their numerical strength in the House. The twist came a year later when Nitish’s successor RCP Singh, as the national president of the JD(U), joined the Modi government as the JD(U)’s solo representative. Though RCP, widely acknowledged to be No. 2 in the party, reiterated time and again that he had joined as the Union Steel minister with Nitish’s prior approval, leaders close to Nitish, including the incumbent JD(U) national president Lalan Singh, brushed aside his claims. The matter came to a head when Nitish decided to not send RCP to the Rajya Sabha for a third term. The party also served a show-cause notice to RCP, asking him to explain his position on the corruption charges against him that he and his family members had purchased 58 plots of land in his native Nalanda district since 2013. RCP later trashed the charges and quit the party.

Nitish now says that RCP had switched his allegiance to the BJP to be part of a plot to topple his government, a charge vehemently denied by both RCP and the BJP. Lalan Singh even claimed that there was a bid to apply another “Chirag Model” as part of a deep-rooted conspiracy against the Nitish government. He was referring to LJP leader Chirag Paswan’s decision to field his candidates only against JD(U) nominees in the last assembly polls, which had cost Nitish many seats.

The BJP has since called Nitish a rank opportunist, accusing him of having shown scant regard for the people’s mandate. But Nitish looks undeterred, as speculations about his emergence as a possible challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls fly thick and fast. Nitish, on his part, has denied that he harbours any such ambitions. Yet, political pundits are already floating theories about how he will hand over the baton of the state government to Tejashwi Prasad Yadav a few months before the next general elections. That is still many months away. Until then, Nitish faces the daunting challenge of running a government with RJD that has 34 more MLAs than the JD(U)’s tally of 45. He also has to contend with the volleys of corruption charges that the BJP leaders have already begun hurling at various RJD ministers, including Tejashwi, Tej Pratap Yadav, and many others.

Nitish has time and again iterated his government’s zero tolerance against both corruption and communalism. It is to his credit that he has always managed to run his coalition governments by insulating himself from all the taint buckets hung perennially around the necks of his allies like an albatross. It should be no different this time.

(This appeared in the Print edition as 'Babua Chameleon')

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