Raids by the CBI and Enforcement Directorate at the homes of Lalu Prasad and members of his family last week have left Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar with the difficult choice of either continuing with the RJD chief, who will play the political victim, or opening talks with the BJP about terms and conditions for the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2020 Bihar Assembly elections. For now, though, Nitish seems happy to go slow as he watches the moves of other stakeholders — the RJD, Congress and BJP.
There has been speculation about Rahul Gandhi offering Nitish a “respectable and important” position in the Congress-led Opposition ahead of 2019. But being the coordinator — whatever the actual designation may be — of Opposition parties may not be good enough for Nitish to stay on in the company of Lalu and his corruption-tainted family. He would have to surrender his moral authority to talk against corruption, and on his demand, made last month, that states be given the power to act under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. Nitish’s clean image is his USP and the source of his bargaining power — and as the BJP turns up the heat on his deputy Tejashwi Yadav, the pressure on the Chief Minister to take a stand will escalate rapidly.
The BJP is impatient to hear from him. Some Bihar leaders of the party, such as Ashwini Kumar Choubey, have been talking of a “Plan B” — possibly getting Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to campaign more in the state — but the BJP will certainly be more comfortable with ‘Plan A’, which is built around Nitish for both 2019 and 2020. For the Lok Sabha polls especially, Nitish could be a very important player for the BJP to secure victory.
And yet, Narendra Modi’s robust and overbearing BJP isn’t the party of A B Vajpayee and L K Advani that Nitish has dealt with earlier. This BJP is likely to insist on setting the terms of engagement, and Nitish has already declared he is not a “pichhlaggu” — one who follows blindly. His ego battle with Modi is probably over, but he may still have a few inhibitions to shed before getting into bed with the BJP again. He would be acutely aware that once he decides to go with the BJP, the door to backing out might be shut forever — he will, therefore, bargain extremely hard.
The BJP has the promise of a friendly Centre to offer — something that Nitish has never had as Chief Minister (if one discounts his seven-day government in 2000). He may also get a good number of seats to contest in 2019 and, should the NDA return to power, possibly a bunch of ministerial berths. There is even the outside chance of a Deputy Prime Ministership.
But the Chief Minister does not seem to have given up on the Grand Alliance in Bihar or, indeed, an Opposition alliance at the Centre — not just yet. An indication of this may be his blow-hot, blow-cold approach towards the Congress — blaming it for the current “mess in the Opposition” one day, and asking it to “set the agenda for the Opposition” on the very next. Also, his repeated announcement, without any provocation or apparent reason, that he is not a candidate for PM, could be intended to signal to the Congress that he is the Opposition’s best bet against Modi in 2019.
To be sure, Nitish has a reputation for conducting his politics simultaneously on parallel tracks — for Bihar at one level, and as a player in national politics on the other. But now, impending action by law enforcement agencies against Lalu and his family are sullying his good image by association, even as a role of significant importance in the Congress-led Opposition has been slow in coming. The JD(U) did not find a place in the SP-Congress alliance for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, and the Congress failed to react to Nitish’s early move for a consensus candidate for the presidential election. He and Sitaram Yechury had proposed the name of Gopalkrishna Gandhi at the DMK meeting in Chennai at the beginning of June, but the Congress did not discuss it at all — only for Gandhi to be named the Opposition’s candidate for Vice President on Tuesday.
The Mahagathbandhan has now had some time to ponder upon its future. In taking the time to think through his options, Nitish has also given the Congress and BJP time. As of now, the Chief Minister seems to be veering towards a reboot of his politics — keeping aside his national ambitions for 2019 and taking a pragmatic view for 2020, most probably with BJP as alliance partner. The offer is very much there from the old associate — only the conditions and timing of getting back together may have to be negotiated afresh.