THE DEATH OF A GRAND ALLIANCE
Nitish Kumar’s decision to get back with the BJP might be the end of the Opposition’s mahagathbandhan fantasies for 2019. As well as his own national ambitions
The writing was on the wall when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, fresh from a visit to New Delhi, where he attended President Ram Nath Kovind’s swearing-in ceremony, summoned the 71 legislators of the Janata Dal (United) to his 1, Anne Marg residence in Patna on the morning of July 25. The post-lunch JD(U) meeting, initially scheduled for July 26 in view of the upcoming five-day monsoon session of the state legislature, had been brought forward by a day to discuss an extraordinary situation.
Hours before, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, too, had a similar but separate meeting of his 80 MLAs at his Patna residence in which he said his son, Tejashwi Pratap Yadav, would not resign as deputy chief minister.
Nitish’s response was swift, though not unexpected. Escalating things to a flashpoint, he resigned as chief minister within hours of the RJD chief’s afternoon press conference.
Before he put in his papers, though, Nitish called up Lalu and told him about his decision to quit. Lalu apparently suggested a rethink, but Nitish had already made up his mind.
Moments later, Nitish drove to the governor’s house and resigned. With this, the RJD-JD(U)-Congress grand alliance, stitched in 2015 ahead of the state assembly polls and one that sparked a flicker of hope in the secular camp for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, has come undone. Not just that, his possible teaming up with the BJP suggests that the Bihar CM has renounced any national ambitions.
Composed and smiling, Nitish showed no sign of indecisiveness as he walked out of the Raj Bhavan after submitting his resignation to Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi. In the brief 15-minute media interaction soon after, he described his break-up with Lalu as an unavoidable consequence of the run of play in the RJD.
Without taking names, Nitish maintained that anyone pinning their hopes on him to protect them from “such a crisis” was mistaken. “Nitish did give Lalu a long rope,” says a JD(U) minister. “Lalu could have defused the situation by making Tejashwi resign. It would not only have put the grand alliance on a pedestal but also robbed the Opposition of its main issue. But Lalu obviously is incapable of letting his party leadership go to anyone else.”
As it turned out, Nitish took 19 days to walk out of the grand alliance after a 27-member Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team raided Lalu’s residence on July 7. Lalu is accused of rigging a tender process in 2005, when he was railway minister, to award the sublease of two railway hotels in Ranchi and Puri to his favoured hoteliers in exchange for three acres of prime land in Patna, routed via a benami company. The CBI had earlier filed FIRs under sections 420 (cheating and dishonesty), 120B (criminal conspiracy) of the IPC and other sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act. Tejashwi is named as he appears to have been a beneficiary of
the benami land deal.
The CBI raids left the alliance split wide open in Bihar. While the RJD and Congress described the raids on Lalu and his family as an act of political vendetta, Nitish and the JD(U) refused to treat it as such. Instead, Lalu’s RJD was clearly told to come out with a point-by-point clarification on the charges against Tejashwi.
Nitish’s resignation was received with unmitigated glee in the BJP. Even before Nitish’s Ambassador had reached home from the Governor’s residence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Congratulations to Nitish Kumarji for joining the fight against corruption. 125 crore people of India support and welcome this honest move”. Another tweet followed soon after: “To rise above our differences in the fight against corruption is the need of the hour for both India and Bihar.” BJP chief Amit Shah lost no time calling Prime Minister Modi and state BJP leader Sushil Modi on what had to be done next: Nitish had to be supported in forming a new government in Bihar.
The JD(U) has 71 MLAs in the 243-member assembly, RJD 80, Congress 27 and NDA 58. With Nitish walking out of the alliance, a JD(U)BJP government will easily cross the majority mark of 122. By Wednesday night, the party had formally decided to back Nitish, naming him the leader of the NDA in the state.
It was just a little over four years ago, in June 2013, that Nitish Kumar walked out of the National Democratic Alliance when the BJP picked up Narendra Modi as the chief of its campaign committee, a role that subsequently led to his becoming the prime ministerial candidate for 2014. The acrimony of 2015 also seems to have been left behind. Instead, a bonhomie has been building between Nitish and Prime Minister Modi for a while. Nitish has been appreciative of all the prime minister’s big moves, whether it was his impromptu stopover in Pakistan for Nawaz Sharif’s birthday, the surgical strikes in September last year or the demonetisation in November. All this to the chagrin of his friends in the Opposition, including alliance partners Lalu and the Congress. Modi, too, had lauded Nitish’s prohibition. That support was firmly cemented last month when Nitish announced his support for BJP’s presidential nominee Ram Nath Kovind even before the opposition named Meira Kumar as the joint opposition’s candidate.
Though Nitish, in his parting shot, avoided criticising Lalu and family, he has been taking thinly veiled digs at his former alliance partner. “One can fulfil one’s needs but not greed,” he said at one point. At another time, he had said, “Kafan mein jeb nahin hoti (shrouds have no pockets).”
An acrimonious battle between the two former allies is now imminent. The RJD remains the single largest party with 80 MLAs and has also staked a claim to form government. Although Nitish did meet Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and reminded him of his past stand against corruption— especially how he tore the ordinance shielding convicted legislators—the Congress is likely to remain with Lalu. “There was a clear trust deficit with Nitish, which only grew bigger after he backed Ram Nath Kovind, and not Meira Kumar,” says a Congress leader. The party also thought unreasonable the demand for Tejashwi’s resignation on the basis of an FIR, especially in the backdrop of the BJP’s refusal to drop any of its own tainted lot.
NITISH KUMAR AND NARENDRA MODI SEEM TO HAVE PUT BEHIND THEM THE ACRIMONY OF 2015; A BONHOMIE HAS BEEN BUILDING FOR A WHILE
IN FOCUS Nitish Kumar outside Raj Bhavan in Patna after his resignation