Nitish joins hands with BJP: Bihar’s political scenario

High stakes in Bihar’s political battle

The political developments in Bihar over the past week suggest that there is very little chance of the coalition government there surviving in its present shape. If the deadlock continues, and Bihar Chief Minister and JD(U) President Nitish Kumar dismisses his Deputy Chief Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav, it is not clear how much he would gain in stature as an honest leader who brooks no compromise on the issue of corruption.

It is tough to gauge how much sympathy Mr. Yadav may be able to gain if dismissed as, technically, only charges of corruption may not be a sufficient ground for dismissal. It is difficult even to assess what the electoral gains for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would be whenever the next election takes place in Bihar. What is clear is that the relationship between Mr. Kumar and RJD chief Lalu Prasad will no longer be the same. Considering that Mr. Kumar’s move to extend support to Ram Nath Kovind, the presidential candidate of the National Democratic Alliance, did impact Opposition unity, splitting with the RJD now would further weaken the chances of a united Opposition in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

A battle of perception

Both Mr. Kumar and Mr. Yadav have very little flexibility on how to handle this crisis. There is pressure on Mr. Kumar to prove his commitment to clean politics by dismissing Mr. Yadav in case he refuses to resign. On the other hand, Mr. Yadav would prefer to be dismissed as his resignation might be seen as his acceptance of charges of corruption. If dismissed, he may try to project himself as a victim of a conspiracy. So the tussle between the two seems to be about who wins the battle of perception.

Politics is all about perception. Long ago, senior Congress leader V.P. Singh left the Congress and aggressively campaigned against its government. Charging its senior leaders of being involved in the “Bofors deal”, he went on to win the next election and become the Prime Minister. To date, no one is not clear about what happened in the Bofors deal. More recently, Arvind Kejriwal, who campaigned against corruption with a clean image, went on to become the Chief Minister of Delhi.

Cracks that grew

The RJD and the JD(U) formed an alliance before the 2015 Assembly elections based on a compromise on Mr. Kumar’s part to counter the increasing political dominance of the BJP in Bihar. But relations between the two were always a bit strained. While the alliance contested the election in the name of Mr. Kumar having a clean image, and he was referred to as “Vikas Purush”, the RJD tried to put Mr. Kumar on the back foot soon after the election results. The RJD managed 80 seats while the JD(U) won 71 seats, even though both had contested an equal number of seats.

The coalition partners did have differences when each took a slightly different stand on issues such as “Sharabbandi” (prohibition) or when RJD leader Shahabuddin was released on bail and issued statements criticising Mr. Kumar. Even senior RJD leader Raghuvansh Prasad Singh went on to criticise Mr. Kumar for weakening the alliance by supporting demonetisation.

Now that Mr. Kumar seems to be on the offensive, he first refused to reconsider his stand on extending support to the NDA presidential candidate even when the Opposition fielded the “daughter of Bihar”, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar. There were obvious reasons for Lalu Prasad to be unhappy with Mr. Kumar’s decision but there was very little he could do to persuade him to change his decision.

With the Deputy Chief Minister and some other leaders of the RJD now under a cloud, Mr. Kumar has asserted his commitment to upholding zero tolerance for corruption. Amidst growing tension between the coalition partners, Mr. Kumar has made it clear that he would prefer to resign to save his image rather than seen to be running a corrupt government. But will he be able to reap electoral dividends in Bihar?

Much will depend on what shape political developments take if there is a split. Mr. Kumar would need the support of either the RJD or the BJP to form the government. Outside support by the RJD — as it has indicated — would damage Mr. Kumar’s image, while a government formed by him either as in coalition with or with outside support from the BJP would result in him facing criticism of being an opportunist.

Tied up in political knots

Neither of the two scenarios would help him electorally. The JD(U) hardly has a core support base except among the Kurmis and Koeris, the two non-Yadav upper Other Backward Classes (OBCs). At best he may be able to attract support from the lower OBCs. The Yadavs will certainly not vote for him. The upper castes may not back Mr. Kumar, being unhappy about his split from the BJP in 2013. Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ram Vilas Paswan is reasonably popular among Dalits. Mr. Kumar may not be able to attract even Dalit support in sizeable measure. And his moving closer to the BJP in any way would alienate Muslims. These developments put Mr. Kumar in a difficult political position and might even pave the way for the BJP to grow in another State in the east.

Sanjay Kumar is a Professor and the Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 4:34:15 PM |

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