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How to read Nitish Kumar’s openness to joining forces with archrival Lalu Prasad.
There was a time in Bihar politics — between the 2009 Lok Sabha and 2010 assembly polls — when Nitish Kumar had stopped bringing up Lalu Prasad at public meetings. The NDA victory in 2009 (32 of 40 Lok Sabha seats) had led Nitish to believe Lalu had become “irrelevant” and hence did not deserve a mention. During the Nitish-driven campaign in Naxal-hit Gaya in 2010, Nitish had told this newspaper: “Main to unka [Lalu’s] naam tak nahi leta. Bas pati-patni raj bolna kaafi hai. (I don’t even say his [Lalu’s] name. It’s enough to draw attention to the husband-wife rule.)”
On June 14, 2014, the same Nitish had to name Lalu several times at a press conference and mentioned how he had spoken to “Laluji” to help the JD(U) keep the BJP at bay. It was perhaps the first time in 20 years Nitish spoke well of his archrival. He may have little option now. The man who scripted Bihar’s turnaround had to almost agree to give up his “development man” image for political survival, by embracing pragmatic politics in a state where social combinations are still more important than any ideology or the moral high ground.
Politics has come full circle for Nitish. It was in 1994 when Nitish, second-in-command to then Chief Minister Lalu Prasad, started nursing his own ambitions of emerging as an OBC leader. Nitish, referred to as Lalu’s “Chanakya”, parted ways with “bade bhai” and formed the Samata Party under the guidance of George Fernandes. But when he won fewer than 10 seats in the 1995 assembly polls, he had to revisit his politics. Nitish stitched an alliance with the BJP during the heyday of A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani in 1996.
Now that Nitish seems to be reconciling to the idea of forging a formidable social combination with Lalu, it appears he is ready to give up his image as the “development man” to stay relevant in the face of a BJP surge under Narendra Modi. This time, it may not be the same set of insiders who convinced him to part ways with the BJP in June 2013. A large section of JD(U) leaders, including many Muslim leaders, believe the JD(U) must ally with Lalu before the BJP takes over Bihar politics. Some still talk of post-poll alliances, but that risks voter confusion and votes being divided.
JD(U) insiders say Nitish never works in a hurry. He must have thought through the decision to seek Lalu’s help in seeing the JD(U)’s Rajya Sabha candidates through the bypolls. It is true that Nitish is late in responding to Lalu’s overtures of support to the Jitan Ram Manjhi government. The RJD chief, whose family is continued…