In the run-up to the Bihar assembly polls, while the RJD-Congress-Left combine reached a seat-sharing agreement last week, there is a telling twist in the negotiations in the NDA — with Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party quitting the alliance in the state, citing ideological differences with the JD(U), even as it endorses Narendra Modi’s leadership and continues in the NDA at the Centre. The move seems to be aimed specifically at downsizing Nitish Kumar. The LJP, which currently has two MLAs in the assembly and draws its support mostly from one group within the Dalit community, is hardly a challenger to Kumar. But by throwing down the gauntlet, it undermines the JD(U) chief’s claim to be the undisputed leader of the NDA in Bihar.
Nitish Kumar, who is seeking a fourth consecutive term as chief minister, has been one of the two major poles of Bihar politics — the other being his arch-rival and RJD patriarch Lalu Prasad — since the Mandal revolution in the 1990s. This election, too, will revolve around his leadership and record in office. But the signs of anti-incumbency may be building, and the LJP may be taking its cue from them. Even if Kumar wins another term, he will, in all likelihood, have to contend with a more assertive BJP and govern with a diminished stature. With Lalu Prasad in jail, Kumar’s main campaign plank — the contrasting of his record in government to the RJD’s “jungle raj” — is already running out of resonance. The LJP’s snub is yet another indication that “Sushasan Babu” cannot harp on old achievements, be it improved infrastructure and law and order or welfare schemes such as bicycles for girl students. Kumar will have to respond to the aspirations of a new generation of voters, who have been beneficiaries of his own long years in office, but who will judge him by their changing hopes and aspirations, not compare him to the Lalu regime.
The shrinking of the NDA in Bihar follows close on the heels of the Shiromani Akali Dal quitting the alliance a few days ago in Punjab and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra late last year. The LJP’s move confirms the continuing transformation of the NDA from a political alliance in which the regional parties had a significant say to one dominated by the BJP and commandeered by the charisma of PM Modi. This has reduced the space within the NDA for regional concerns and leaders, especially if these are at variance with the vision of Modi and his BJP. The Sena and SAD may have separated from the NDA for different reasons but the clash with the BJP’s centralising tendencies was arguably a factor. Past record suggests that NDA constituents have had to cede ground to the BJP in their strongholds since 2014. It may be the turn of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) now.
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