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Decoding Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s Won’t Return to BJP Until Alive Remark

Attacks aplenty on Kumar since he swam back to the Mahagathbandhan shores. But this landing has the look and feel of permanence, for reasons personal, ideological, and pragmatic.
Nitish Kumar

Image credit: The Indian Express

Nitish Kumar announced on Friday, “I will not return to them [Bharatiya Janata Party] till I am alive”. The BJP’s IT cell operatives and trolls immediately swung into action, emphasising that the Bihar Chief Minister is a “habitual” party-hopper and “opportunistic” to boot. The so-called mainstream media also downplayed Nitish’s categorical assertion against aligning with the BJP and attached more importance to Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s allegation that Nitish disowned his mentor Jayaprakash Narayan’s ideals for his greed for power.

They forget that as a backward caste leader, Nitish Kumar would wish to keep social justice politics alive. From the BJP’s electoral gains in the heartland since 2014, especially in Bihar, where it was at his party’s expense, Nitish may well have foreseen a long line of elite caste leaders calling the shots after him. The way the BJP has co-opted backward class forces, apparently even putting up Chirag Paswan to limit his gains in the 2000 Assembly election, Nitish is probably taking a longer view of the future.

Remember, Nitish is conducting a caste census in Bihar, the first chief minister to do so. Supported by Tejashwi Yadav, he pressed for this census even when he was with the BJP. Even then, it was seen as an indication he could ditch the BJP to protect the interests of the backward classes. The Chief Minister of Bihar may also be willing to remain with the opposition Grand Alliance or Mahagathbandhan considering his age and lack of a political heir.

Even when we empirically scrutinise the events that led Nitish to join the Mahagathbandhan in 2015, return to the National Democratic Alliance in 2017, and the alliance in August 2022, it is abundantly clear his resolve “not to return to the BJP till he is alive” will last. His announcement not to realign with the BJP while inaugurating a government engineering college at Samastipur—a place associated with his mentor and socialist icon Karpoori Thakur—is well-thought-out when we decode the logic he advanced.

Nitish Kumar’s Logic

Fondly recalling his association with the BJP of the pre-Modi-Shah era, Nitish said, “Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi used to be the leaders of the BJP. I worked in the cabinet of Vajpayee, who gave me three ministries. Advani, too, was accommodative and respectful of the views of alliance partners, and Joshi, as science and technology minister, accorded National Institute of Technology status to the Bihar College of Engineering Patna—my alma mater.”

Explaining how “new BJP leaders” were downright whimsical and arrogant when dealing with allies, Nitish explained why he remained in alliance with the BJP for so long. He was philosophically nostalgic in recalling his association with the BJP of Vajpayee and Advani.

He accused the central government of misusing the investigating agencies, probably for the first time—an accusation all opposition parties have heaped on the saffron outfit. “They lodged a case against Laluji, which caused me to sever ties with him. Nothing came of it. And now, when we are together again, they are lodging new cases. You can figure out the style of functioning of these people,” Kumar told the gathering without mentioning the BJP.

The Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax raided Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad Yadav’s establishments in July 2017. They lodged new cases related to an unexplained and vague scam in the IRCTC against him, his wife and former chief minister Rabri Devi, and his son, Tejashwi, deputy chief minister in the Nitish-led Mahagathbandhan government. Nitish severed ties with the alliance that comprised the RJD and Congress party at the time and found his way back to the BJP. But the investigating agencies did nothing about the cases in the next five years—as long as Nitish stayed with the BJP.

Then, simultaneous with Nitish joining the Mahagathbandhan—which now has seven parties, including the RJD, Congress and the Left—the investigating agencies petitioned the court to cancel the bail of Tejashwi and framed fresh charges against Lalu and his family members.

On Friday, as Nitish explained at Samastipur why the BJP was firmly in his past, the central investigating agencies raided a Bihar businessman-contractor said to be close to Janata Dal-United (JDU) national president and MP Lalan Singh, who had launched a spree of attacks on the BJP for misusing central agencies.

Apart from the flagrant misuse of investigative agencies, three other broad reasons can help us predict Nitish will not realign with the BJP and instead go all out to unite opposition parties to challenge Modi and the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Nitish-Modi Link Snapped

First and foremost, Union finance minister and close friend of Nitish Arun Jaitley—the architect of the JDU-BJP alliance in Bihar ahead of the 2005 Assembly election—was alive in 2017. Jaitely commanded reasonable clout with Narendra Modi besides enjoying Nitish’s trust. Nitish used to call on private dinners and lunch with Jaitely even when he had deserted the BJP and joined the Mahagathbandhan.

It is reliably learnt from sources close to Nitish that Jaitely had a pivotal role in getting Nitish back to the BJP. Then, it still had Advani and Joshi in the Lok Sabha, with another old guard Rajnath Singh enjoying proximity to the PM as Union home minister. Nitish did not feel forlorn in the NDA as long as the BJP still had the vestiges of the Vajpayee-Advani era.

However, the death of Arun Jaitely in 2018 and Shah’s growing stature in the party made the situation—particularly for Nitish—very uncomfortable. The 2019 Lok Sabha and 2020 Assembly elections made things unbearable for him. When he joined the NDA in 2017, he got all his old associates—Sushil Kumar Modi, Nandkishore Yadav, Prem Kumar etc.—back as his ministers.

After the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2020 Assembly elections, the BJP replaced Sushil, Nandkishore and Prem Kumar with those loyal to Modi and Shah and reporting to the latter, ignoring the Chief Minister. It went all out to weaken Nitish and break his JDU.

The JDU claims to have some evidence suggesting the BJP was using one-time Nitish protégé and former IAS officer Ram Chandra Prasad Singh (RCP, as he is popularly called) to perform “operation lotus” in Bihar, as it did in Maharashtra, Goa and several north-eastern states.

That there is no chance for Nitish to return to the BJP is also because the saffron party no longer has a link to communicate between its leadership and Nitish. Those who know Nitish’s style of functioning know well that it is extremely hard for those who lose his trust to regain access to him.

The author is a senior journalist, author and media educator. The views are personal.

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