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‘Gameplan changed’—why sidelining Nitish is no longer an option for BJP

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As soon as results started trickling in, state BJP president Samrat Choudhary rushed to CM Nitish Kumar’s residence. “It was a courtesy call, and we discussed political issues,” a tight-lipped Choudhary told The Print.

While Nitish is set to attend an NDA leaders’ meeting Wednesday evening, the INDIA alliance hasn’t entirely given up hope of luring him back. Photos and videos of Nitish on the same flight as Tejashwi Yadav Wednesday also sparked plenty of social media buzz as both headed to their respective alliance meetings in Delhi.

RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav and JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar on the same plane to Delhi Wednesday | Screengrab

“Nitish Kumar does not believe in the communal politics BJP plays,” said RJD MP Manoj Jha, hinting at a potential reconciliation between JD(U) and the INDIA alliance.

However, the JD(U) has been quick to shoot down such speculation.

“The question of JDU returning to the INDIA alliance does not arise. The people of Bihar have voted for the Modi-Nitish alliance,” JD(U) national spokesperson Rajiv Ranjan told ThePrint. “Since 1995, Nitish Kumar has spent more than 20 years with BJP and feels more comfortable with it than the RJD.”


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A better position for JD(U) than 2019

A situation where the BJP cannot secure a majority on its own suits the JD(U). In 2019, when the BJP crossed the majority mark by itself with 303 seats, it had no particular compulsion to cater to alliance partners’ whims.

Back then, the BJP central leadership wasn’t ready to accommodate Nitish’s demand for Cabinet berths. Thereafter, the ‘angry’ Bihar CM even turned down the offer of “symbolic” representation in the Modi government. Only after a gap of two years did the BJP agree to allow RCP Sinha to join the Modi cabinet.

However, the differences between the BJP and JD(U) were never fully resolved. The JD(U) left the alliance in 2022, accusing the BJP of attempting to split the party, and joined the ‘mahagathbandhan’ with the RJD in Bihar.

“This time, the BJP will not be able to inflict such humiliation as we will be the second-largest ally in the NDA alliance government,” said another JD(U) leader.

The BJP also realises it cannot dictate terms to Nitish Kumar given the changed circumstances.

“This time the BJP will not be able to inflict such humiliation as we will be the second largest ally in the NDA alliance government,” said another JD(U) leader.

Already, ahead of the NDA meeting, the party has reiterated its long-standing demand for special status for Bihar, a cause Nitish has championed since 2009.

Meanwhile, the BJP also realises that it is in no condition to dictate terms to Nitish Kumar given the changed circumstances.

In January 2024, when the BJP and JD(U) were planning to reunite, there were talks of an “honourable exit” for CM Nitish Kumar after the Lok Sabha polls.

However, the same BJP leaders are now more restrained in their approach, especially with Bihar assembly elections around the corner.

“Though our party wants to install a BJP chief minister before the assembly polls, we can’t afford to antagonise Nitish Kumar. He still has a vote bank, which will be crucial for the 2025 assembly polls. And the fact that we have not been able to get the numbers we were expecting has also altered our gameplan,” said a senior BJP leader, requesting anonymity.

In this year’s Lok Sabha elections, the BJP contested only one seat more than the JD(U), which fielded 16 candidates. This carried significant symbolic weight, with many seeing it as the end of Nitish Kumar’s ‘big brother’ stature in the alliance.

In 2019, the BJP and JD(U) each contested 17 seats. The BJP won all, while the JD(U) lost one. Their third alliance partner, the undivided LJP, secured six seats. However, the NDA could not repeat this performance, with the INDIA alliance making gains, including 4 seats for the RJD and 3 for the Congress.

Caste and clout

Despite the BJP campaign’s focus on the ‘Modi factor’ and internal dissatisfaction with Nitish Kumar, the party got a taste of why the JD(U) leader was crucial to its success in Bihar early on in the elections.

“During the Lok Sabha polls this year, a Kurmi outfit (the Adivasi Kurmi Samaj) called on Kurmis to defeat the BJP, blaming it for depleting the JD(U)’s strength in the 2020 assembly polls. In some seats, a section of Kurmis voted for the RJD. I do not think the BJP could afford to dump Nitish Kumar, whatever the outcome,” said political analyst and former Bihar MLC Prem Kumar.

Nitish enjoys considerable in his Kurmi OBC community, which comprises 2 about percent of Bihar’s population but wields disproportionate influence in the administration.

“Assembly elections are due in 2025 we need time to get our caste configuration right and negate the false claim made by Tejashwi Yadav that he was responsible for the massive recruitment in government jobs,” said a BJP legislator.

The BJP’s anxiety to keep Nitish in good humour is reflected in the fact that the JD(U) was given 16 seats when political observers speculated it might be offered fewer than 10. The BJP even agreed to forgo Sheohar, where it had a sitting MP, Rama Devi, to accommodate JD(U) candidate Lovely Anand.

On Monday, a day ahead of the election results, Nitish Kumar met PM Modi in Delhi. State BJP president Samrat Choudhary told The Print that it was not an unusual development. However, BJP sources suggested that it might be related to JD(U)’s participation in the new Union ministry.

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the PM's residence in New Delhi Monday | ANI
Bihar CM Nitish Kumar meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the PM’s residence in New Delhi | ANI

At another closed-door meeting with Nitish last month at the Patna BJP office, PM Modi “expressed his respect” for the CM, a senior BJP leader said.

“The PM said that Nitish is different from other politicians in India as he does not promote family members nor does he have any corruption charges against him. It is unlikely the BJP high command will pressurise Nitish to leave,” said the leader who attended the meeting.

Nitish holds the key, trust issues persist        

 Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Nitish Kumar was sworn in as CM for the ninth time after breaking his alliance with the RJD and tying up with the BJP.

While the RJD is the single-largest party in the state with 79 MLAs, followed by the BJP with 77, Nitish Kumar still holds the key to government formation in Bihar with a strength of 45 in the House. In the February vote of confidence, the Nitish Kumar-led NDA government easily crossed the majority mark while the opposition staged a walkout.

However, the BJP and JD(U) have never been very comfortable allies and had also parted ways in 2013 due to Nitish’s objections to Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.

When the JD(U) was allied with the RJD, there were talks of a merger between the two parties, but there was no such speculation when Nitish joined hands with the BJP.

“Too many JD(U) MLAs have a socialist background, making it unlikely they would want to merge with the BJP,” said a senior BJP leader, pointing out that several JD(U) MLAs would be more comfortable aligning with the RJD.

The BJP also has misgivings about Nitish and his reputation as a “Paltu Ram” or inveterate turncoat.

From announcing he would “rather die” than tie up with the BJP and then joining a “forever” alliance with it a year later, to helping form the opposition INDIA bloc before switching sides, Nitish Kumar’s volte-faces have become something of a trademark.

For many BJP leaders, therefore, Nitish’s support is not something they can comfortably bank on regardless of his proclamations.

“He has taken so many U-turns in his career as CM that he no longer enjoys the credibility of the people,” said a BJP MLA, requesting anonymity. “Recently, (RJD leader) Tejashwi Yadav remarked that Chacha will make another U-turn after 4 June. During election rallies, Nitish assured that he would not make another U-turn, but few people believed him.”

Many within the BJP have also pointed out that Nitish Kumar was sluggish in his election campaign this time, which also impacted the NDA’s performance. “He also fell ill in the middle. If we compare his rallies with those in 2019, he did fewer rallies,” said a senior BJP leader.

However, even if BJP leaders express the opinion that Nitish should take an ‘honourable exit’ from Bihar politics, they continue to be in wait-and-watch mode.

“The decision on the future of Nitish will have to be made by Nitish himself,” said the senior BJP leader.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)


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