Such is the JD(U)’s base, a senior party functionary said, that “every drop counts for us in filling the bucket”. “Hamari party ka base hi aisa ki bund bund se ghada bharta hai,” the leader said, shorty after the JD(U) announced that it would support the NDA’s presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, as of now still the Bihar governor.
The JD(U) cannot afford to vote against Kovind, a non-Jatav Dalit. JD(U) leaders believe that a number of Dalit communities in Bihar — most of them now bracketed as Mahadalits — identify with Kovind’s community. The party had already gambled with the risk of alienating Mahadalits two years ago when it forced the resignation of then Bihar CM Jitan Ram Manjhi in February 2015.
It was Nitish himself who, following his resignation in the wake of the rout of the JD(U) in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, had handpicked Manjhi to replace him as chief minister. Manjhi, who belongs to the Mushhar community, fell out with Nitish with a series of decisions that upset the JD(U) leadership, while making it clear that he was in mood to hand the reins back to Nitish ahead of the October 2015 assembly polls.
Once Manjhi formed the Hindustan Awam Morcha and joined the NDA, the BJP used his forced resignation to paint Nitish as anti-Dalit and asked Mahadalits to avenge the “humiliation” of Manjhi. Throughout the run-up to the polls, Manjhi too attacked Nitish for “insulting” a Mahadalit.
As it turned out, it did not work against Nitish, with the JD(U) sweeping the polls in alliance with the RJD and the Congress, though Manjhi himself did wrest the seat of outgoing Bihar Speaker Uday Narayan Choudhary. Now the nomination of Kovind, who belongs to the Koli community and hails from Uttar Pradesh, means the JD(U) cannot be seen as voting against a Dalit candidate.
“We simply could not have afforded it. Our base is like that, and Nitish has worked a lot on the Mahadalit base,” said a JD(U) leader. “Like Paswans in Bihar, Jatavs are the dominant caste in UP. The Mahadalits in Bihar identify with non-Jatav Dalits of UP. After the Manjhi episode, we could not have afforded anything else. We would have been in the line of fire for putting obstacles in a Dalit’s path to the country’s top constitutional post.”
There could be an additional game-plan, feel the JD(U)’s opponents. They point out how the BJP-led central government made Nitish a member of a national committee last September for the commemoration of Jana Sangh ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya’s birth centenary. Nitish was the only Opposition chief minister in the committee.
The very next month, the JD(U)’s rivals note, Nitish hailed the strikes across the LoC carried out by the NDA government. This was unlike the stand of most Opposition parties, whose responses were either muted or questioned the government’s claims, and even the stand of JD(U) veteran Sharad Yadav.
Even on demonetisation, Nitish broke ranks with the Opposition and supported the government’s move and distanced his party from the November 28 Akrosh Diwas of Opposition parties, while Sharad Yadav was in the forefront of organising the event.
Now, the support for Kovind comes after Nitish himself had initiated moves for a common Opposition candidate. He had discussed it with some Opposition leaders and met Congress president Sonia Gandhi on April 20.
Even before Kovind’s name was announced, in fact, Nitish was already being seen as distancing himself from other Opposition parties as far as the presidential election was concerned. On May 26, Nitish skipped an Opposition luncheon meeting chaired by Sonia in Delhi to discuss the presidential election. The very next day, he arrived in Delhi to attend another lunch — hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in honour of visiting Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth.
Later, JD(U) leaders denied suggestions that Nitish was getting closer to the BJP. “Such speculation is by those who do not understand Nitish’s style of functioning. He has been in the forefront of Opposition unity and will remain so,” said JD(U) general secretary K C Tyagi.
RJD spokesperson Manoj Jha, too, played down any suggestion of Nitish getting closer to the BJP. “Our alliance in Bihar is not affected by this. It will continue,” said Jha. “Why was there no such speculation when the Shiv Sena broke ranks with the NDA and supported Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature for the President in 2012? Or when Nitish, then a BJP ally, supported Mukherjee?”
It was exactly a year after supporting Mukherjee that Nitish, in 2013, snapped his alliance of 17 years with the BJP.