The bind in Bihar: the challenges ahead for Nitish Kumar


An alliance forged out of immediate self-interest as opposed to shared, long-term goals allows only for fleeting moments of togetherness. The very same high-risk political strategising that drove Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar into the arms of Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad is now forcing him to hurriedly disentangle from the tight embrace. Slowly, but surely, Mr. Kumar is building pressure on Mr. Prasad’s son, Tejaswi Yadav, to step down as Deputy Chief Minister following CBI searches that point to him being a beneficiary of political corruption. Mr. Kumar would like two things: keep his government going with the help of the RJD, and, at the same time, protect his own image as a clean politician who will not compromise on the issue of corruption. But with the RJD adamant that Mr. Yadav will not quit as Minister, the Chief Minister might have to make up his mind on taking another political gamble. Mr. Kumar and his party, the Janata Dal (United), have remained in power in Bihar for nearly 12 years, initially in alliance with the BJP and later in alliance with the RJD. During that time, some of his political gambles have failed to pay off, as in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, when his decision to break the alliance with the BJP worked to the latter’s advantage. The JD(U) leader creates his own space in Bihar, beyond a Kurmi caste-base and on a distinct platform that views corruption and communalism as twin evils that have to be fought one at a time. At any point, one or the other is always a lesser evil. Depending on whether the BJP or the RJD is his primary rival, communalism or corruption becomes his main focus. When Mr. Kumar broke away from the BJP in 2014, he was trying to do a Naveen Patnaik, ditch an ally and take over its political space. But unlike Mr. Patnaik in 2009, Mr. Kumar failed miserably, yielding substantial ground to the BJP in 2014. But if an appetite for political risk that makes enemies of friends is his weakness, a readiness to build new alliances with old foes is his strength.

But there are limits to the room for political manoeuvre available for Mr. Kumar. While a tough stand against the RJD on the issue of corruption might enhance his popularity, there is no certainty that he will survive as Chief Minister. Once bitten, twice shy, the BJP might not be all too keen to revive an alliance. A three-way contest will work to the advantage of the BJP, and the party would much rather look forward to a mid-term Assembly election than serve as a crutch for the JD(U). At present, there is little Mr. Kumar can do other than to hope that the RJD would oblige him by agreeing to the axing of Mr. Yadav. Mr. Kumar might risk leading another political churning in Bihar, but that certainly is not his first option in the current crisis. There is too much at stake, but sadly for him the RJD knows he has more to lose than gain by standing on principle.

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