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

India Today - - COVER STORY - By Amitabh Sri­vas­tava with Uday Mahurkar and Kaushik Deka

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.



IN FO­CUS Ni­tish Ku­mar out­side Raj Bha­van in Patna af­ter his res­ig­na­tion

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