Is Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar unhappy with the assembly election results? “You bet, he is,” says a senior JD-U leader. And why shouldn’t he be?
“Just spare a thought for Nitish. He’s been credited for scripting a turnaround in Bihar and taking the state from the jungle raj days of Lalu Prasad to the days of good governance. Yet, when a former ally, Chirag Paswan of the LJP, started openly attacking the CM, our partner, the BJP, did nothing to stop him. This was when Chirag openly swears his loyalty to the saffron leadership,” says the JD(U) leader.
When the final assembly numbers were declared on Tuesday, the JD(U) was left with just 43 MLAs—28 less than the 71 it had in the outgoing house. The BJP won 74 seats and, together with Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (Secular) and Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) who won four seats each, the NDA has returned to power in Bihar with 125 seats, just three more than the majority mark.
JD(U) sources say that Nitish had even expressed his unwillingness to take over the Chief minister’s post. They say he’s also made it clear to the BJP that he cannot be taken for granted. Now if the BJP has rushed to persuade Nitish to continue as chief minister (according to JD(U) leaders), it is not because of any deep appreciation for the CM. “This is the bitter fact of politics. The Bihar verdict is such that the BJP, despite its increased numbers, is dependent on Nitish to form the next government. Nitish may have other options, the BJP does not,” said a JD(U) leader.
When LJP president Chirag Paswan snapped ties with the JD(U) on October 4, and fielded candidates (primarily) against Nitish Kumar’s party and openly launched a bitter attack on the CM, the JD(U) had expected the BJP to call his bluff. Some BJP leaders had then privately justified not attacking Chirag during the elections, saying the saffron party needed the Paswan votes. But the JD(U) leaders are miffed now, because the BJP is still not pulling up Chirag even after the elections.
Though the BJP backed Nitish for the top job in Bihar, the party’s central leadership had refused to say a word against Chirag during the campaign, which allowed the LJP leader to co-opt PM Modi and even project a BJP-LJP government to the electorate. This created plenty of confusion in the minds of the electorate, and led to the BJP’s traditional vote not transferring to JD(U) candidates while the reverse happened benefitting the BJP candidates.
“The JD(U) could have easily become the single largest party if Chirag had not fielded candidates against us to divide the pro-NDA votes. It helped the Tejashwi Yadav-led grand alliance win many constituencies,” conceded JD(U) spokesman Rajiv Ranjan. He also said that the JD(U) expects the BJP to expel Chirag and the LJP from the NDA alliance for working against the NDA candidates and “hobnobbing with Tejashwi”.
Nitish maintained an uncharacteristic silence about the poll outcome for hours after the victory. He issued a tweet accepting the mandate and thanking the prime minister only on Wednesday evening, almost 22 hours after the results. This was, incidentally, just before Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsed Nitish’s leadership, declaring that the NDA will serve Bihar and every BJP member will leave no stone unturned to help “realise the development of the state”. Nitish has accepted the post, but it has not lessened his sense of hurt.
JD(U) leaders admit that Nitish knew about the BJP using Chirag to undercut the JD(U) and inflict some controlled damage to emerge as the big brother in Bihar. “However, the controlled damage could have become collateral damage. The strategy ended up hurting the entire NDA by splitting the vote and handing the advantage to the RJD,” says a senior JD(U) leader.
As Nitish looks set to continue as Bihar chief minister, in addition to his governance goals and administrative challenges, the JD(U) leader will also have a perception battle to handle. Fewer seats in the state assembly do not mean lesser control for Nitish in the next government. He’ll have to make sure the message gets across. Sources say the BJP has already started flexing its muscles, beginning with a demand for the post of assembly speaker—a post they have never held in Bihar before. Nitish will have his hands full in the coming days.
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