When the Lok Sabha results were being announced on 16 May, Nitish Kumar was anxiously watching out for the results of the bypolls in five Assembly constituencies. The JD(U) won in only one Assembly constituency, adding to the shock of its measly two-seat Lok Sabha tally.
JD(U) leaders are scurrying for cover, unable to explain the crushing debacle, and turning their backs on Nitish. Those who had so far been lauding Kumar as the only leader who could defeat Narendra Modi have now reversed their stand.
“Nitish lacks willpower. If he continues this way, the party will be doomed in the Assembly election,” says Gyanu Singh, a JD(U) leader who had kept mum during the poll campaign. Questioning Nitish’s political acumen, he asks, “Why did Nitish field five candidates each from the Kushwaha, Yadav and Muslim communities? Why were so many who had defected from other parties given tickets?”
Soon there were demands for Nitish’s resignation from the Bihar CM’s post. Shivanand Tiwari, recently ousted from the party, also advised Nitish to resign. Former deputy CM and BJP leader Sushil Kumar Modi’s statement that he was in touch with 50 JD(U) leaders, also came in handy for those demanding the CM’s scalp.
On 16 May, several JD(U) leaders visited Nitish, but he refused to reveal his mind. There was speculation that he would soon make a surprising decision. He resigned the very next day, taking moral responsibility for his party’s defeat, but did not seek dissolution of the Assembly.
So, what led Nitish towards the extreme step? Was it a last-ditch effort to fix his image? After all, he had played a major role in the party’s decision to leave the NDA in protest against Modi’s nomination as the PM candidate. He was aware that without the Congress’ support, quitting the NDA would leave the party in a weak position, yet he had gone ahead with the decision.
Nitish’s resignation gave rise to intense speculation in political circles. As he had not sought the Assembly’s dissolution, many saw his resignation as a gambit to buy time and plan for the future. Some expected that Nitish would withdraw his resignation under pressure from party leaders. But that did not happen. Then the buzz shifted to the question of who would replace him: would it be Rajya Sabha MP RCP Singh, former JD(U) state chief Vijay Chaudhary, state party chief and Rajya Sabha MP Vashishth Narayan Singh, Cabinet minister Vijendra Yadav or Rajya Sabha MP Ali Anwar?
Even as the speculations intensified, Nitish kept quiet. And on 18 May, he announced a name that no one had expected: Makhdumpur MLA Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit, who had been a minister of state under Nitish and lost the Lok Sabha election from Gaya.
In a way, the decision was Nitish’s masterstroke. As he belongs to the Kurmi community, he would be accused of favouring his own community had he proposed RCP Singh for the CM’s post. He could not opt for Vijendra Yadav because non-Yadav OBCs form the core of his vote bank. Since the upper castes have almost entirely deserted the JD(U), he could not name a Rajput like VN Singh. And as the Muslims did not back him in the Lok Sabha polls, Anwar did not stand a chance.
However, soon fingers began to be pointed again at Nitish, with BJP leader Sushil Modi describing Manjhi as Nitish’s “puppet”. But, even if the decision to make Manjhi the CM is just a sham, Nitish has tried to turn his defeat in the Lok Sabha election into a victory of sorts through it. Manjhi belongs to the Musahar community, one of the most oppressed castes in the country. RJD leader Lalu Prasad Yadav had once played the caste card by promoting the Musahars and the BJP has also been trying to mobilise the Mahadalits through Hindutva, but Nitish has gone way ahead by installing one as the CM.
And, of course, it is a bold political stratagem — a significant step as a last resort. Nitish would not have done this if he had to worry about the debacle in the Lok Sabha polls alone. But he was faced with many other challenges too. The poor showing in the Assembly bypolls, the statements of party leaders expressing discontent, and his party entering the danger zone in the number game in the Assembly — all these were serious issues that forced him to take the step.
The JD(U) has 113 of the 243 seats in the Bihar Assembly and the Manjhi-led government is dependent on the support of four MLAs from the Congress, one from the CPI and six independents. In the current scenario, the independents are in a strong position. However, with two dissident BJP MLAs resigning on 20 May, the saffron party has been reduced to 88 seats in the Assembly. At least six other BJP MLAs have been elected to the Lok Sabha, which means as many seats falling vacant. That is some relief for Nitish.
In 34 of the 40 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress and the RJD had together given the BJP a tough fight. It is likely, therefore, that the Congress will support the RJD in the Assembly, instead of the JD(U).
Nitish understands that it is easier for him to deal with other parties than to handle dissent within his own. The elevation of Manjhi was his final stroke. He has to take his MLAs into confidence and curb any signs of rebellion in the days ahead. Else, he will be forced to change his choice of CM under pressure from the MLAs. He could even be forced to form a new government with the BJP’s support.
Another challenge before Nitish is that 12 berths in the council of ministers have been lying vacant since the past few months. Nitish had been overseeing these departments with the help of bureaucrats. Many JD(U) leaders are miffed with him because of this and he will have to appoint new ministers soon. It won’t be easy as not just leaders from his party but also the independents would grab the opportunity to put forth their demands.
Nitish was saddled with criticism from within the party even before the poll results. Many leaders had deserted him because of his individualistic style of functioning, though that had earned him the reputation of being a morally upright leader at the national level. His resignation has silenced the dissidents and helped him strengthen his hold over the party. Now, he can map out the strategy for the Assembly polls next year.
“Nitish quit in order to quell dissent within his party. That is all it means,” says BJP MLA and former Cabinet minister Nand Kishore Yadav. Bihar BJP chief Mangal Pandey referred to the resignation as a drama. “Nitish campaigned on the basis of his work and the people rejected him. He should have asked for the Assembly’s dissolution and a fresh election,” says Pandey.
Now that he is no longer the CM, Nitish might find time for the organisational work of the party. He had to pay a heavy price for having left all the party organisational work to the BJP when it was an ally. Now he will have to take on the RJD as well as the BJP, even as the saffron party would want to see the RJD in a stronger position so as to clear its own path to power. Nitish could yet evade political oblivion if he strives to combine social justice with development as his USP.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman