Bihar sees quickest U-turn in politics

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Nitish Kumar has taken over as chief minister of Bihar for the second time since 2015 and for the sixth time since 2005, just a day after he tendered his resignation. He resigned as chief minister of Mahagathbandhan comprising RJD, JD (U), Congress and 15 other small parties and he has been returned to power as chief minister of JD (U) in alliance with BJP and its allies. The ongoing standoff between Nitish Kumar and the RJD leadership on the issue of corruption charges against the deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD had become irreconcilable with RJD leadership’s insistence on Tejashwi Yadav not tendering his resignation. This led Nitish Kumar to throw a political bombshell by announcing his resignation on 26 July, citing irreconcilable differences with ally RJD.

Prior to his resignation on 26 July, Nitish Kumar was heading a 20-month-long coalition of the grand alliance that defeated the BJP in 2015. However, ever since the CBI filed cases of corruption against Tejashwi Yadav, his father Lulu Prasad Yadav and sister Mesa Yadav, pressure had been mounting on the chief minister to sack his deputy. But any action against the deputy chief minister could have evoked the wrath of the RJD, whose support was vital for Nitish Kumar.

Undoubtedly, there are media reports that indicate that irreconcilable standoff between Nitish Kumar and the RJD leadership prompted the former to tender his resignation on 26 July; nevertheless, there are also media reports that indicate that Nitish Kumar was reportedly ‘in touch’ with the BJP for some months. According to one report, on 5 February this year at an event at Gandhi Maiden in Patna, Nitish in full public view had used the brush to paint the lotus, BJP’s symbol, which some experts interpret as having heightened speculations, which is now proving to be true.

The flurry of hectic activities in the BJP camp and JD (U) camp gives rise to speculation of ‘meaningful pre-orchestrated understanding’ between the two camps. Some experts opine that the conclusion was not hard to draw given the fact that BJP called for its highest decision-making body, Parliamentary Board less than an hour after Nitish submitted his resignation to Governor Tripathi and two tweets from Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the situation amply clear as to which direction things could move:

According to another media report, the Governor of Bihar Keshari Nath Tripathi (who also happens to be the governor of West Bengal), who was otherwise scheduled to return to Kolkata after attending a convocation programme of Nalanda University, had to reschedule his programme and had extended his stay in Patna, which makes it amply clear that his decision to stay in Patna was guided by a request from concerned quarters to conclude a specific business.

Another media report published on 24 July had explicitly stated that 26 July could turn out to be a crucial date in the political calendar of Bihar saying there was a great deal of private talk in the informed circles of JD(U) in Bihar that Nitish might make a pre-emptive strike before the Monsoon Session of the Bihar Assembly. In the 243-member Assembly, the RJD has 80 MLAs, the JD-U 71 and Congress 27. The BJP has 53 MLAs and its allies LJP 2, RLSP 2 and HAM 1. There are four independents and four MLAs belong to the CPI-ML. The JD-U and BJP together make up for 124 seats and with BJP allies the total could go up to 129, clearly crossing the half-way mark. Some experts don’t rule out the possibility of some defections from the RJD and Congress to the JD (U)-BJP alliance.

Fallout of the resignation

JD (U) and the BJP camps in Bihar are perhaps elated over these dramatic developments; however, the Congress has expressed disappointment. Media reports citing the statement of Congress spokesperson stated that the ‘Grand Alliance’ was given a mandate for five years based on the policies, principles and cumulative leadership. Stating that it was a mandate against the BJP and Prime Minister Modi, the Congress lamented at the sudden resignation of Nitish Kumar and his joining hands with the BJP.

The notion of Mahagathbandhan, which gained salience in the bye-elections to the Bihar State Assembly in August 2014, was successfully tested during the 2015 state assembly elections that brought RJD-JD (U)-Congress into power in Bihar with Nitish Kumar as chief minister. However, in the wake of resignation of Nitish Kumar and his party joining hands with the BJP, the prospects of Opposition unity at the national level have become bleak. Asked about Opposition unity by the media persons soon after his tendering resignation, Nitish Kumar is reported to have said that he was always for it “but what is the agenda of the Opposition. A reactive agenda will not work.”

Some experts opine that Nitish’s resignation on the issue of corruption could be exploited by Prime Minister Modi to revive the issue again closer to elections to use it against Opposition faces in different parties.

Some experts opine that Bihar developments entail the potential of putting the Congress’ idea of a mahagathbandan or a grand alliance on the back foot and Nitish’s resignation and subsequent joining hands with the BJP also bring BJP and JDU together, putting a spanner in the Opposition’s plan to counter BJP in the Hindi heartland during national elections.

According to one opinion, many would call Nitish a political shape shifter and an opportunist, but in politics there are no permanent enemies or friends.

Some experts feel that it is going to be a lonely walk in the national politics for RJD supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav, who might receive support from other political parties, but in the long run he may run out of support as corruption will again become a dominant narrative as opposed to lynching and economic issues.

Some political observers feel that Nitish’s resignation and his joining hands with the BJP have been hugely disappointing to the Congress and its 17 allied parties in the Opposition ranks. Bihar developments have larger implications — not just limited to politics and governance in Bihar but altering national political alignment.

According to some political pundits, the messagefrom Bihar for Opposition leaders like Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Sitaram Yechury, Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, D Raja, Karunanidhi and others is loud and clear — not only the grand coalition government in Bihar has fallen but what has actually been shattered to pieces is their dream of stitching grand coalition of opposition forces against Narendra Modi in 2019 parliamentary election. Nitish Kumar, after all, was been the most credible face of the Opposition prior to 26 July. His departure from opposition ranks is going to hurt badly the Opposition.

Way forward

While asserting that the Opposition needs to rethink its strategy, some experts opine that the biggest worry for the Opposition should be that they will not have a Prime Ministerial face in 2019. Nitish was being touted as a political face who could have united various regional satraps but in this case the only option for the regional parties would be to push Rahul Gandhi on Centre stage which in today’s scenario is not a viable option as party might not be able to create a consensus around his name. The net gainer in the current scenario remains Nitish Kumar who has not only dumped the incumbency of his tenure on RJD but has also come out unscathed and reinvented by taking a position on the issue of corruption.

RJD will only have the option to go for a personalized attack against Nitish which will have a limited time span. On the other hand, some experts feel that it is high time for the Congress to devise its strategy afresh and it should introspect about its shrinking strength. Otherwise dream of opposition unity will fizzle out, which in Bhojpuri is aptly described: Gayee bhains paani mai (the ship of the Opposition may sink).

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