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 currently unrepresented in Parliament, might have expected the JD(U) to offer a Rajya Sabha seat to Rabri Devi. Had that happened, the JD(U)-RJD alliance would have been sealed by now.
But Nitish took his time to respond. He spoke neither for nor against Lalu after the Lok Sabha results. When rebellion surfaced in the party, he had to reach out to Lalu. This has sent out the message to party rebels that they would become irrelevant if Lalu stood by the JD(U) against the BJP. Most rebels belong to the upper castes and some senior leaders like Narendra Singh, the agriculture minister, who are opposing an alliance with Lalu, have reason to believe upper-caste leaders will refuse to toe the Nitish line in case of an alliance.
The Lalu camp seems upbeat at the prospect of an alliance with the JD(U). Even though the RJD (besides the debutante AAP) was the only party whose vote share increased despite the Modi surge, it hadn’t translated into seats. The RJD-Congress-NCP alliance, with over 30 per cent votes against about 39 per cent for the NDA, managed only four seats for the RJD. The JD(U)-CPI combine, which received about 16 per cent of vote, is now considering a social combination with the RJD that looks unbeatable on paper, with Muslim and OBC-EBC-Mahadalit votes consolidated.
But the biggest hitch for the potential alliance is basic — who will lead it? Will the RJD, with 22 per cent votes on its own, concede leadership to Nitish? Or will the combination look for a compromise candidate who can be “controlled” by two remotes? Neither party has been giving thought to this. Nitish has been talking about crossing that bridge when it comes. A section of JD(U) leaders still thinks the party should ally with the Congress. But it is clear that the prospect of a JD(U)-RJD alliance is more enticing for Lalu and the RJD.
Nitish, perhaps, wants to deal with one challenge at a time. He first wants to win the two Rajya Sabha seats and send out a strong signal to dissidents. He knows that the BJP, in power at the Centre, will do its utmost to wrest his development plank. Modi spoke of a special package for Bihar during his campaign. The Centre may play this trump card at an opportune time. Central ministers from Bihar — Ram Vilas Paswan, Upendra Kushwaha, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Radha Mohan Singh — have already started announcing attractive schemes.
Nitish knows he cannot just fight Modi on the “secular versus communal” line now. He wanted to be Modi’s main challenger, but he is looking to get on board the other challenger, Lalu, who owes his political existence to anti-BJPism. But there is still some time before the merger joke — the Rashtriya Janata Dal (United) — comes to fruition.