Tomorrow afternoon, Nitish Kumar will take oath for the eighth time as Chief Minister of Bihar. The high frequency is on account of his revolving-door policy for allies: easy come, easy go. For this term, he has recycled his allies from 2015: Tejashwi Yadav, who heads the Rashtriya Janata Dal or RJD, and the Congress; apart from them, the new “Grand Alliance” in Bihar has four smaller regional parties. “This alliance will serve the people, it will fight corruption,” Nitish Kumar said today to the press.
By his side was Tejashwi Yadav, 39 years his junior, once described by Nitish Kumar as guilty of all sorts of wrongdoing. In 2017, the younger leader was at the receiving end of Nitish Kumar’s wrath. Describing his brother and him as ministers who were incorrigibly corrupt, Nitish Kumar logged out of the alliance and hooked up with the BJP. Today, sources said, Nitish Kumar had, as far back as three years ago, said to Tejashwi’s mother, Rabri Devi, at an Iftaar party, “Maaf kijiyega” (forgive me). Within months of going back to the BJP, he was regretting it. There’s a fair chance that this is being paraded now as a justification for Nitish Kumar’s reconnecting with the Yadav family, one that ensures he remains Chief Minister and is able to fend off the BJP from eating into not just his votes but his MLAs.
For nearly 17 years, Nitish Kumar and the BJP were steadfast partners, both in Bihar and in the BJP’s national coalition. But when the BJP made it clear that Narendra Modi would be its star leader, ahead of the 2014 general election, Nitish Kumar began to get antsy. He had blamed the then Gujarat Chief Minister for not doing enough to stop the communal riots of 2002; when Narendra Modi visited Bihar, he was slighted by his counterpart publicly.
Their discomfort has never eased up. If Nitish Kumar returned to the BJP in 2017, after a four-year separation, it was out of self-interest. He sensed that the PM’s personal popularity could help boost his own success in Bihar, where elections were approaching. He was also worried that Tejashwi and Tej Pratap Yadav, rookie ministers who often played hooky, were tainting his reputation as “Sushashan Babu” or “Man of Governance”.
Till the general election in 2019 and state polls a year later, his renewal of vows with the BJP was marred only by sporadic bickering though the Chief Minister’s resentment was swelling: for one, he had placed third in the state election, allowing the BJP to show its generosity towards allies by honouring a pre-election promise that he would be the head of the government, irrespective of his party’s result; The BJP had removed its leaders like Sushil Kumar Modi who had served as his Deputy earlier, and replaced them with ministers in Bihar who were seen as more pliable to taking their instructions from the BJP top rung in Delhi.
With weeks to go before voting in the election of 2020, the wheels of the alliance started to come off. Chirag Paswan, whose party was in alliance with the BJP at the centre, made it clear that he would serve as a vote-cutter, putting up candidates against Nitish Kumar’s. As the Chief Minister raged, the BJP refused to rein in Chirag Paswan. When Nitish Kumar ended up with just 43 of a total of 243 seats, he attributed the downsized result to “the Chirag model” – the BJP had thrown a spoiler at him, though it did not accept the charge.
The Chief Minister, sources close to him say, watched without any disbelief how the BJP dismantled the Opposition government in Maharashtra; using a senior leader in the Shiv Sena, it was able to force Uddhav Thackeray’s resignation as Chief Minister and establish a controlling stake in his own party. Nitish Kumar saw distinct parallels: his former trusted aide, RCP Singh, had been chosen by Amit Shah as the JDU’s representative in the union Cabinet; since that happened, in 2021, RCP Singh had become a confidante of Amit Shah and the Prime Minister; it was all a bit much for Nitish Kumar to absorb.
He had by then expelled a couple of senior party leaders who had taken to accusing him, publicly, of being unavailable and disinterested in his job. Pavan Varma was sacked; so was Prashant Kishor. In press interactions, he was often ornery. He had, however, started demonstrating a new regard for Tejashwi Yadav. Together, they took the lead in declaring that Bihar would count its castes, a rebuff to the Prime Minister who had said a nationwide caste census would not be undertaken for now. To an Iftaar party in April, Nitish Kumar walked the short distance to Tejashwi Yadav’s home, allowing the media to witness his gesture of goodwill. When Lalu Yadav fell seriously ill in July, Nitish Kumar took charge of organizing his urgent travel to Delhi.
If they were then Friends with Benefits, the shift to putting a ring on it came largely when RCP Singh’s term in the Rajya Sabha was about to expire. Nitish Kumar refused to extend it; this meant RCP Singh, now mistrusted, had to resign from PM Modi’s cabinet. Late last week, Nitish Kumar felt RCP Singh would activate an Amit Shah plan to start poaching JDU legislators. As a pre-emptive strike, RCP Singh was accused by the JDU, his own party, of corruption.
None of that would have taken place without a deal having been struck between Tejashwi Yadav and the man he once derided as “Paltu Chacha” for his bait-and-switch approach to political partners. It was Lalu Yadav, sources say, who persuaded the younger leader to prop up Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister – it is Tejashwi Yadav who, with 79 seats, brings the bigger numbers to the table. But this arrangement, his father stressed, was the only way to stymie the BJP from trying to swallow up regional parties.
For its part, the BJP decided that it would not try to talk Nitish Kumar into rethinking his decision. It feels his leaping back-and-forth between partners with vastly contrasting ideologies will be punished by voters, who will see his gambit as self-serving; the BJP also thinks that Nitish Kumar’s ambition to become Prime Minister – or at least take a serious shot at it – means he cannot stop trying to promote himself as an equal to PM Modi.