Every NDA constituent in Bihar has started aggressive posturing ahead of the assembly elections. RLSP leader and Union minister Upendra Kushwaha has pitched himself as a CM nominee but the BJP’s own C P Thakur too has counted himself in.
The LJP’s Ram Vilas Paswan looks snugly confident that he can wrangle the seats he wants. But the BJP also has to contend with Kushwaha, who wants 67 tickets without boasting a single member in the current assembly, as well as former CM Jitan Ram Manjhi, who wants 50 tickets though his HAM has technically no members, his 19 MLAs having been elected on JD(U) tickets.
Kushwaha, another leader once promoted by Nitish Kumar who had made him change his name from Upendra Singh, has pushed the latest, hardest bargain. Noting that BJP leaders “are at loggerheads over the CM choice”, he has said, “My party has offered a solution to the NDA’s CM selection as there is confusion and infighting in the NDA over it. We have also started preparations to contest 67 assembly seats.”
Kushwaha has grown in aggression since he tied up with the BJP, winning the NDA three Lok Sabha seats. He remains a key figure in the BJP’s calculations with his potential to break up Nitish Kumar’s vote base.
But Kushwaha appears to have felt marginalised since the BJP tied up with Manjhi, and his aggression is seen as an attempt to drive home the message that the BJP should value him as much as any other partner.
Former Union minister C P Thakur of the BJP has said he is very much in contention as a possible NDA CM nominee. A prominent upper-caste Bhumihar leader, a Narendra Modi loyalist, and a former BJP state president, Thakur has said, “I cannot shy away from the responsibility if the party desires it. I am very much in the race for CM.”
Ram Vilas Paswan has not been pushing vocally for seats or the CM’s chair, saying his party would back any candidate chosen by the BJP and adding Narendra Modi is the NDA’s unanimous leader. Having contested seven Lok Sabha seats and won six of them, the LJP’s leaders believe some 40-45 assembly seats will naturally come its way in any case. Paswan was a last-moment inclusion in the NDA before the Lok Sabha elections. “It should be the BJP’s call to decide if it wants to project a CM in a pre-poll or a post-poll situation,” he has said. This goes against the stand of the RLSP, which says any decision should be taken by the NDA, not by the BJP.
In fact, Manjhi too has said he would go by the BJP decision on projecting a CM before or after the polls. But the 50 seats he is reportedly seeking is proving too much for the BJP, which would like to contest at least 150-155 of the 243. The BJP has 91 seats, having won those in 2010 in partnership with the JD(U).
Manjhi and Paswan are equally crucial to the NDA, having given the BJP a platform to stitch a rainbow coalition with a support base of upper castes, OBCs and Dalit against the social combination of the RJD-JD (U)-Congress.
Sources say the BJP might not offer even 20-25 seats to the RLSP on the basis of a thumb rule that one Lok Sabha seat is equivalent to seven assembly tickets. “As the RLSP contested three Lok Sabha seats, he must not ask for 20-plus seats. But he is asking for a number that the BJP cannot concede as it has other valued allies to accommodate,” said a BJP leader, adding Kushwaha “is getting over-ambitious and must not forget that his party won three Lok Sabha seats only because of the Modi wave”. The RLSP’s primary ultility is as a party that can potentially break the Luv-Kush (Kurmi-Koeri) combination stitched together by Nitish Kumar.
Of Manjhi’s 19 MLAs, nine are trying to contest from the BJP, which may rob him of some of his bargaining power. Also weighing against the former CM is that he is untested as a winner, although the Mahadalit voters he is targeting constitute about 13 per cent of the population. The Manjhis count for four per cent, The LJP has been constantly getting 5-6 per cent votes, while the RLSP bagged 3.2 per cent last year.
BJP legislature party leader Sushil Kumar Modi told The Indian Express: “It is the freedom of an individual or a party to express their opinion. All matters including the CM projection, in a pre-poll or a post-poll situation, will be taken during an NDA meeting.”