Bihar is now the staging ground for the war of the unlikely rivals. Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, newly expelled from the JD(U), insists he still has the numbers, while Nitish Kumar, his predecessor and former mentor, who installed him as CM, has also staked claim to form government. As the state is again roiled by political turbulence, months before the scheduled assembly elections later this year, two things seem clear: One, constitutionally, the mentor seems on firmer ground than the protege-turned-rebel, given that Nitish claims the support of the majority in the JD(U) and, with the RJD-Congress-CPI by his side, in the House. But, two, that politically, Nitish Kumar is mired in a mess of his own making that has also ended up misshaping and disrespecting his large mandate. In the circumstances, dissolving the House and going back to the voter may be the best way out.
When Nitish Kumar won his re-election in 2010, it seemed he had been rewarded by the people, cutting across caste and class cleavages, for turning around Bihar’s story in partnership with the BJP. There was optimism that the advances made under his leadership — in restoring law and order, and rebuilding state capacity to deliver other basic services like roads, schools and healthcare — would now be taken forward. But all too soon, the hopefulness began to wane. Amid building signs that Nitish was presiding over a general administrative slowing down and fewer successes in his second term, he broke off the JD(U)’s 17-year-old alliance with the BJP, pointing at Narendra Modi’s elevation as the BJP’s PM candidate. That dramatic gesture may or may not have burnished his “secular” credentials, it cast intolerable strain on his government, which, with the BJP numbers hived off from its comfortable majority, now had to contend with life on the edge. Then, after a JD(U) setback in the Lok Sabha polls that Modi won, Nitish resigned as chief minister, reading into the results a snub for his leadership of the state, and installed Manjhi. Apparently spooked by the BJP’s rise in the state, he also tied up with arch rival Lalu Prasad’s RJD.
It is safe to say that the Nitish voter did not sign up for this. Manjhi’s spectacular revolt against his political benefactor, therefore, is a moment that must bring clarity. There must be no more playing with the people’s mandate. Nitish Kumar must do the right thing. Instead of staking claim to lead a government again, he must call for a fresh election.