How Nitish Kumar is rolling the dice ahead of the 2019 general election

Political trapeze artist that he is, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is currently busy playing a balancing act.

A couple of weeks back, one of Kumar’s close advisors met the top Congress leadership. He wanted to explore what Congress thought of Kumar returning to the ‘grand alliance’.

Aware of the advisor’s links with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, Congress said all decisions about Bihar were being taken by Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Tejashwi Yadav.

Then came the by-elections results. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) lost the Jokihat assembly seat to RJD. Not merely the consolidation of RJD’s Muslim and Yadav votes, but the aggressive turnouts of the two communities left the JD(U) rattled.

There are nearly two dozen Yadav legislators in Kumar’s JD(U) and five Muslims. Observers of Bihar politics say it will be difficult for any of these to continue in JD(U) as the 2019 Lok Sabha polls draw near. The Bihar assembly polls are scheduled for 2020.

But worse than Jokihat result were the defeats of ally BJP in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh’s Kairana Lok Sabha and Noorpur assembly seats.

Kumar’s political friends, including a JD(U) leader from western UP, told him that this wasn’t just arithmetic of the opposition coming together. But these were signs of anti-incumbency against the Narendra Modi government in the country’s most populous state. The writing is on the wall for the BJP in UP now that Jats have turned against that party, the western UP leader said.

JD(U)’s Bihar loss notwithstanding, the results in UP have strengthened Kumar’s bargaining power within the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

JD(U) has laid out its demands. It has said Kumar, and not Modi, will be the face of the BJP-led NDA in Bihar in 2019. It has demanded JD(U) will contest 25 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats of Bihar, as it did in 2009.

As things stand, other NDA allies like Lok Janshakti Party’s Ram Vilas Paswan and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party’s Upendra Kushwaha have also flexed their muscles.

In 2014, JD(U) had walked out of the NDA and contested the 40-seats on its own. It received 16 per cent votes. But amid the Modi wave, it won only two seats. Paswan’s party contested seven as part of the NDA and won six. Kushwaya’s party contested four and won three and BJP won 22.

But BJP can ill-afford facing a united opposition in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand. Apart from UP, the opposition will contest unitedly in Jharkhand as well. If the BJP is unlikely to repeat its 73 of the 80-seats in UP, it cannot hope to win 12 of 14 that it did in 2014 in Jharkhand.

This is where it needs Kumar to stay within NDA. Kumar continues to command a sizeable vote share, including those who see him as 'sushasan babu' - someone who brought good governance to Bihar. In Bihar, BJP doesn't have a leader to match Kumar's popularity.

If Kumar were to walk out of NDA, Paswan and Kushwaha would too. There is speculation that the three might even float an alliance outside the NDA as a ‘third force’ in Bihar for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

But Kumar and JD(U) understand that the BJP winning 200-odd seats in 2019 would make Kumar one of the most influential leaders in the NDA. If George Fernandes was part of the trinity that ran NDA-1, along with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L K Advani, Kumar could take the place of Fernandes in NDA-3 of 2019. This is where Kumar's JD(U) would need to contest as many Lok Sabha seats as it can, and the BJP would be required to sacrifice on some of the seats it won in 2014.

A lot would also depend on the results of assembly polls in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati campaigning in Bihar for Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress could queer the pitch for Kumar as far as his Mahadalit support base is concerned.

For the present, Kumar has told his party workers that he would follow the example of Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, but within the framework of the NDA. JD(U) has asked its workers to plan protests against the Centre for not granting Bihar special category status, but the party will not walk out of the NDA – at least not yet.

While Tejashwi is unwilling to cede ground to Kumar and JD(U), his father Lalu Prasad is said to be of the view that 2019 is a crucial fight to defeat the 'duopoly' of Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, and not just Paswan and Kushwaha, but also Kumar should be given a honourable deal if he were to come back to the ‘grand alliance’.

Bihar’s politics is set for interesting times.

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