Nitish’s Options
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

Nitish Kumar is angry. From withdrawing a dinner invitation to practically avoiding any kind of contact with Narendra Modi, and having to explain handshakes with someone holding a constitutional position, he seems to have come some way in a road to Splitsville – away from his alliance partner. What now?

First a bit of history. Nitish and the BJP go a long way. He along with George Fernandes formed the Samata Party in 1994 breaking away from Janata Dal. Samata fought the 1996 Lok Sabha elections with the BJP. Incidentally Akali Dal, which is often referred to as the natural ally of BJP, fought those elections with Janata Dal i.e. not with the BJP! Since then Samata and its merged version, Janata Dal (United) has fought every election for both the Lok Sabha and the Bihar Assembly together. In other words since its formation as Samata, nearly all electoral battles of the party under Nitish’s leadership have been fought in alliance with the BJP. It should be remembered that ideologically Samata / JDU has been clearly Lohiaite left of centre but has found common ground with the BJP (which in popular discourse identified as the Right wing and Nationalist party). For the secular causes in post independence India, Babri and Gujarat would top. The parties came together after the former and stayed together through the latter. Power in Bihar was not smooth and required many iterations. From the first failed attempt in 2000, the two parties stayed together through all the difficulties.

Merger of Samata with Janata Dal brought with it a whole lot of Lohiaite leaders (Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan for instance). Defections from Lalu’s party, the RJD, brought in even more, like Shivanand Tiwari. In meantime George Fernandes was isolated and eventually thrown out and some of the original lot of MPs such as Prabhunath Singh and Digvijay Singh left.

Since 2005, Nitish has consolidated his leadership position in Bihar. He has also managed to increase the presence of his party. BJP has accommodated him in this respect possibly in order to keep the government going. A typical example here will be the allocation of Rajya Sabha seats. Being a cadre party the BJP has a significant organisational presence in the state which complements the leadership of Nitish, in a symbiotic relationship.

In the 2010 election, the two parties together polled about 39% of the votes. RJD in alliance with Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP polled about 27% of the votes. It is conceivable that most of these votes can be polled by the RJD on its own. In terms of seats though the BJP – JDU alliance walked away with over 80%. Congress which ruled state almost continuously from independence until 1990, polled about 8 % of the votes. In the event of RJD, LJP, and the Congress coming together and able to effect full vote transfers their total percentage will come to 35% Given the level of polarisation it may not have mattered much in terms of seats but the fight would have been much closer.

Secular media has been urging Nitish to break from the BJP and go solo. Should Nitish do that? While the secular champions will have the satisfaction of having weakened BJP, what is in it for Nitish?

First, electoral arithmetic is a little dicey. The ‘hope filled’ piece linked above was written before the 2010 assembly elections. Simple fact is that in the event of JDU splitting from the BJP and facing an alliance of RJD – LJP – Cong, it will lose unless BJP’s share of votes is less than 5%. This certainly is not the case. Even without Cong an RJD with or without an alliance with LJP can make things quite hot for Nitish, if not actually defeat him as BJP’s own vote base will be more than 10%

Joining with Congress can be an option. Here Naveen Patnaik who has Congress as his principal opposition force, may not be the appropriate example. For Nitish Congress in Bihar is not a major force nor is likely to become one in the working future. The possible model will be more like a Mulayam or Mamata model rather than a Pawar one. But for this he has to be or have the ability to be a solo power and extend selective support to Congress and obtain benefits for him and his government. Depending on Cong to come to power will limit his options significantly. And, as Lalu and Karunanidhi can testify, concluding pre-election arrangements with the Congress is not easy! Essentially he should have about 33 % vote share, with or without Congress. This is simply not likely.

One can understand Lalu’s game in this. The shrewd operator that he is, he has understood that unless there is a game changer, he will not be able to effect an 8% swing from BJP-JDU. His focus therefore has been in breaking the alliance and reducing the threshold. Systematically he has been upping the stakes and so far Nitish has been walking into the trap. So much so that a handshake in a meeting of CMs has been promoted by Lalu as a sell-out of secularism and Nitish is forced to react. With every clarification and distancing by Nitish, Lalu has been upping the ante. It is perhaps understandable that the ex-RJD people like Tiwari can be impervious, but for Nitish to be blind can be costly. After all for Lalu no price can be enough. He can campaign that even in the case of a split, he can point to Nitish’s association with ‘communal forces’ over the last sixteen years and can run a strong campaign. After all Lalu’s objective is not to enshrine secularism but to come to power in Bihar!

In the long run the BJP – JDU relationship may change, but in the short – medium, Nitish needs BJP support. Having said that how does he manage? First he needs to take call, whether his short – medium term stakes are in Bihar or at the national level. Based on this one can see the following courses:

1. Mount a challenge to NDA national leadership, but before 2014 elections. For this to happen he can merge his party with the BJP or finesse a formal understanding with the BJP (and the Sangh)

2. If he sees his role as essentially confined to Bihar, he needs to arrive at a compact with the BJP leadership to ensure success in the state. And the BJP needs to help him arrive at one. A corollary to this would be that he can have little say in how the BJP elects its national leadership. After all they need to deal with challenges in all the other states.

Generating pinpricks can make for good press copy and TRPs, but is not a good characteristic of a leader. While the secular press may want him to be a Naveen or Mulayam, he should not end up being a Chandrababu Naidu!