On a day of heated political action in Bihar with three weeks left for the first phase of the assembly polls, the BJP scrambled to reassure its senior partner JD(U) after the LJP, which had exited the alliance in the state, poached at least two BJP leaders — and floated the possibility of fielding them as candidates against the JD(U).
With a furious Chief Minister Nitish Kumar delaying his appearance at a joint press conference Monday, the BJP issued a hurried statement reposing faith in him and declaring that he would continue in the post if the alliance returned to power, irrespective of their seat strength.
The party also sent a symbolic signal by sealing a formula that gave one additional seat to the JD(U). According to the final arrangement, the JD(U) was allotted 122 seats and the BJP 121. As for the other partners, the Jitam Ram Manjhi-led HAM will get seven seats from the JD(U) quota, and Mukesh Sahni’s VIP six from the BJP.
In effect, the JD(U) and the BJP will contest from 115 seats each.
With matters coming to a head mid-Monday, and the press conference delayed, BJP’s Bihar president Dr Sanjay Jaiswal issued a statement reiterating the alliance’s faith in Nitish Kumar’s leadership.
Sources said that it was only after this move that Kumar agreed to attend the press conference.
At the conference, both sides took pains to declare their support for each other. “We, the (JD(U) and the BJP, have been working together for a long time and will continue to do so…I do not react to what others say. Some people derive pleasure from criticising me,” said Nitish, in an indirect reference to LJP president Chirag Paswan who had repeatedly criticised the Chief Minister.
Responding to a specific question on Chirag, Kumar said: “I will not talk about others. But I have a long association with (Chirag’s father and Union Minister) Ram Vilas Paswan. He is unwell, we wish him a speedy recovery. But one would recall that the JD(U) and the BJP had helped him become a Rajya Sabha MP. Even during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sushilji (Kumar Modi) and I campaigned together in several constituencies and LJP won all its six seats.”
Speaking for the BJP, Jaiswal reiterated the party’s faith in Kumar. “There is no confusion about Nitish Kumar’s leadership and those not accepting his leadership cannot be part of the NDA,” he said.
In a show of strength, the press conference was attended by senior leaders from both sides: Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, Bihar in-charge Bhupendra Yadav and Devendra Fadnavis for the BJP, and state president Bashistha Narayan Singh and working president Ashok Kumar Choudhary of the JD(U).
“Let me make it clear once and for all that Nitish Kumar is the NDA’s CM candidate. He has been the NDA CM and will become CM again… We have a long association, since 1996, barring a few years in between (during the NDA split in 2013),” said Sushil Kumar Modi.
Asked if Kumar would be CM even if the BJP gets more seats than the JD(U), he said: “He is our CM candidate in all circumstances. It does not matter which party gets what, it is about the total NDA strength. We will get a three-fourth majority.”
Asked why the LJP continues to be a part of the NDA at the Centre, he said: “Ram Vilas Paswan is the Minister at the Centre, and he has been ailing.”
The tension between the JD(U) and the BJP had started simmering Friday when the LJP declared that it had persuaded the BJP’s state vice president Rajendra Singh to switch sides and stand as its candidate from Dinara. Singh is a powerful contender and was a probable CM candidate from the BJP’s side in the 2015 polls before losing to JD(U)’s Jay Kumar Singh.
On Monday, another BJP leader Barun Paswan switched sides and is likely to contest for the LJP against HAM from Kutumba. These moves triggered talk within the JD(U) that the BJP was using the LJP “as its dummy” in case of an anti-incumbency vote.
While sources in the LJP camp said more leaders from the BJP may follow, LJP principal general secretary Abdul Khalique declined to reveal details or discuss the names of candidates. However, giving an indication of the gameplan, Khalique said: “Our workers will remain the top priority but winnability is always the prime factor.”
Sources in the JDU camp, meanwhile, also pointed to claims by the LJP camp that they would use posters featuring Prime Minister Modi in their campaign since the party remained an NDA partner at the Centre. However, Khalique said such a move was “never discussed at the party forum”.
Speaking to reporters, Sushil Kumar Modi said: “We will request the Election Commission to ensure that only the NDA can use posters of the PM and CM… The BJP has progressed under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in the state.”
By evening, adding fuel to the fire, Chirag Paswan kept up his attack against the Nitish Kumar government, this time issuing a message pointing to alleged corruption in a scheme for rural roads and sanitation. The message read: “After the next government (in Bihar) is formed, Saat Nischay will be examined and the guilty sent to jail.”
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