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Will Nitish remain Bihar CM? No doubt, says BJP; but voices within talk of his reduced clout

Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the architect of the current BJP-JD (U) alliance, dialled Nitish in what party leaders called a “congratulatory” call.

Written by Liz Mathew | New Delhi | Updated: November 11, 2020 7:10:10 am
JD(U) supporters celebrate in Patna on Tuesday (AP)

As the results trickled in Tuesday evening pointing to the NDA scraping past the 122-seat majority mark with the BJP as the dominant partner for the first time in Bihar, its leaders underlined their campaign commitment to continue with Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah, the architect of the current BJP-JD (U) alliance, dialled Nitish in what party leaders called a “congratulatory” call. Sources said that Shah was clear that if the NDA formed the government, Nitish Kumar would lead it.

But the fact that Nitish and his JD(U) have slid in the final tally isn’t lost on anyone. By midnight Tuesday, the BJP was leading in 74 of the 110 seats it had contested (a gain of 21) and the JD(U) in 43 of 115 (a loss of 28).

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Bihar Assembly Election Results

For the record, there was little confusion.

“Our bosses have already declared that Nitish Kumar is going to be our Chief Minister,” BJP’s Bihar unit President Sanjay Jaiswal told The Indian Express. “When we decided to be partners, our then national president Amit Shah had said that NDA would be led by Nitish Kumar. So, it stands.” he said.

Asked if Kumar would be CM for the entire five years if the NDA forms the government, Jaiswal said: “Naturally, when our Prime Minister has said that. Yes, it will be so.”

However, there were noises within.

There is an awareness that the anger against Nitish Kumar was vocal and visible during the campaign and even if it had not translated into seats for the Opposition alliance — as exit polls had predicted — it should not be brushed away.

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Prime Minster Narendra Modi, right, greets Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, left during a campaign ahead of Bihar state Assembly elections. in Patna, Wednesday. (AP)

A senior BJP leader said that one option the party was looking at was to “offer” Nitish Kumar the CM’s post as had been announced in public but keep future options open. “There may be a review of this decision after six months to one year,” the leader said.

Another party leader said: “There is no confusion from our end, let’s see what’s on his mind after the final results are in.”

Speaking to The Indian Express, another party leader Sanjay Paswan suggested there was still room for reconsideration. “It’s a victory for the BJP and Prime Minister Modi. But as per our promises, we are committed to offer the Chief Minister’s post to Nitish Kumar. It’s up to the morality of Nitish Kumar to decide what to do.”

What is clear, though, is that the BJP’s increased tally will mean a larger share in the Cabinet and plum portfolios. “The Cabinet and government formation will naturally have to be in proportion to the number of seats each party holds,” pointed out a leader. Another leader added: “It will be on a mutually agreed formula.”

In the outgoing government, formed after Kumar broke his two- year partnership with RJD and re-joined the NDA in 2017, JD(U) had 17 ministers and the BJP had 12 including Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi.

The BJP’s efforts to signal that it will honour its commitment is also meant to counter the criticism of it being a not-so-trustworthy partner.

READ | Will 1 be greater than 75? LJP hopes solitary win vs JDU losses adds up

JD(U) supporters celebrate the lead of their party alliance in initial results for the Bihar state assembly polls, in Patna (AP)

But there are different voices within over the new BJP-JD(U) dynamic. Since it decided to fight the election with JD(U), the BJP leadership was clear in its strategy: push the “double-engine” election plank and at the same time hope that JD(U), which had remained the bigger partner so far, is cut to size and takes the anti-incumbency blowback.

This was behind the propping up of Chirag Paswan’s LJP and although senior leaders subsequently distanced themselves from him, the message had gone home.

The LJP may have got little by way of seats but the NDA is aware of its role in denting JD(U). Said BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya: “In some of the constituencies where the BJP candidate is losing by 1000-2000 votes, Paswan’s votes would have made the difference.”

READ | In Bhagalpur, LJP cuts into BJP votes, Congress scores win

A section in the BJP feels that the JD(U) will fracture as Nitish’s popularity declines because the party does not have a robust second-rung leadership and its social constituencies could move to the BJP. Weakening stronger alliance partners in states has been a strategy for national parties. The BJP tried to emerge as the dominant player in Maharashtra against the Shiv Sena and in Punjab against the Akali Dal, forcing both to eventually leave the alliance.

However, as of now, given the close numbers, the BJP is expected to treat the JD(U) with kid gloves ahead of crucial Assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

For the PM, this could be a double victory. An NDA return to power in Bihar gives the BJP a boost ahead of these polls, helps it put its losses in Jharkhand, Delhi and Maharashtra behind and strengthens the BJP’s assertion that despite Covid, the economic distress and the border standoff with China, the party’s appeal remains largely intact.

More so in a state which strongly felt migrant distress during the pandemic.

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