Patna: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is trying to do what Maharashtra’s Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar could not — keep his flock together.
Since last Friday, he has been holding one-on-one talks with JD(U) lawmakers and legislators, party leaders told ThePrint — a development that comes amid rumblings within the party about its alliance with on-again-off-again partner Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).
JD(U) leaders ThePrint spoke to said that the Bihar CM — who split from BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) last year for the second time in a decade — was holding talks and getting “feedback” from elected representatives of his party.
“I was surprised when I got a call from the CM’s house,” JD(U)’s Pipra MLA Ramvilas Kamat told ThePrint. “There was a lot of speculation in the media. But when I met him last Friday for 10 minutes, he asked me about the problems in my constituency and told me to inform people about why we left the BJP.”
Among those Nitish met is Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Harivansh Narayan Singh, who had been criticised for having attended the inauguration of the new Parliament building in May when his party, JD(U), boycotted the event. The two met Monday, according to media reports.
The timing of these meetings is particularly significant. The party is getting ready to fight the 2024 Lok Sabha elections as part of the mahagathbandhan — which includes the RJD, the Congress and Left parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
There is also dissatisfaction within the JD(U) over its alliance with the RJD, the single largest party in the 243-member house with 75 MLAs as against the JD(U)’s 43. According to a JD(U) MLA who didn’t want to be named, it’s the RJD that is currently in the driver’s seat of the alliance — a fact that hasn’t gone down well with several MLAs in the party.
Neeraj Kumar, a JD(U) MLC, admitted that the point of the meetings was to mollify some legislators, especially with BJP leaders like Sushil Modi — a leader who was once Nitish’s deputy CM in Bihar — claiming that some JD(U) MPs and MLAs were in talks with his party, according to media reports.
“Secondly, he (Nitish) had been unable to meet his legislators because he was busy with the Opposition meeting (that the Bihar CM hosted last month) and so he chose to meet them (now),” Kumar, one of several leaders who met Nitish, told ThePrint.
He also dismissed allegations that JD(U) leaders were “lining up” to join the NDA.
“The results of 2015 assembly polls when Nitish and Laluji were together and when NDA was wiped out would prove a great deterrent against any possible defection,” he said.
According to the BJP however, there may be a rebellion brewing within the JD(U) and the meetings are a way to avoid it. “Though Bihar and Maharashtra cannot be equated, JD(U) is uneasy. There are 16 sitting MPs from Bihar in JD(U). Can the party get 16 Lok Sabha seats to contest in the mahagathbandhan which has six parties?” BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Sushil Modi asked, while speaking to ThePrint.
‘Maharashtra, Bihar not comparable’
Allies however don’t see an NCP-like rebellion happening within the JD(U) anytime soon.
“Communication enables a leader to get a grip of ground realities and feedback. It has a positive impact politically,” RJD leader and former MP Vijay Krishna, believed to be a close associate of Nitish, told ThePrint.
JD(U) leaders, too, say that the two situations are not comparable. A JD(U) MLA who didn’t want to be named said that unlike in Maharashtra, there’s no Ajit Pawar in JD(U).
“There is no leader in JD(U) who has the capacity to take away 30 of the 45 MLAs of the party. Anyone who had claimed the legacy of Nitish Kumar, such as R.C.P Singh and Upendra Kushwaha, have already been ousted,” the MLA said. While former JD(U) leader R.C.P Singh joined the BJP in May, Kushwaha, who had a love-hate relationship with the JD(U) and Nitish, quit the party in February to float his own outfit, the Rashtriya Lok Janata Dal.
However, despite claims to the contrary, there seems to be a degree of discontent brewing with the JD(U) — rooted primarily in the party’s alliance with Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD. Nitish’s association with Lalu dates back to Gandhian socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan’s student movement in Bihar in the 70s and has been through choppy political waters, with the two eventually turning political adversaries. In 2013, after he broke ties with the BJP, Nitish decided to turn to RJD and Lalu — an alliance that remained until 2017, when the JD(U) leader went back to the BJP.
According to JD(U) leaders, Nitish’s decision to return to the mahagathbandhan in August 2022 has caused some rancour within the party. A JD(U) MLA told ThePrint that there was feeling in the party that it was a more aggressive RJD, with its position as a more dominant partner, that’s now calling the shots.
As an example of this, the JD(U) leader cited the bureaucratic transfers in June.
“June is the month of transfers of the lower bureaucracy. Every MLA would want his choice of persons to be posted in his constituency. But in June, while RJD MLAs managed to get their men transferred, the claims of JD(U) MLAs were ignored,” said the MLA.
Additionally, there’s the fear that many sitting JD(U) MPs and MLAs may not get tickets in the upcoming elections — while Nitish managed to bargain with the BJP for an equal number of seats in the 2020 Bihar assembly election, he may not be able to pull it off with the RJD, the leader said.
“Already we are seeing areas of conflict. In Jehanabad, RJD state cooperative minister Surendra Yadav has started his campaign despite there being a sitting JDU MP (Chandeshwar Prasad),” the legislator said.
BJP, meanwhile, is sensing an opportunity. Speaking to reporters in the light of the developments in Maharashtra, BJP’s Sushil Modi told reporters Monday: “In Bihar also, an atmosphere of rebellion is building up in the JD(U) since Nitish Kumar announced the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav as his successor and accepted Rahul Gandhi as leader in the next fight. None of the JD(U) MLAs or MPs is ready to accept Rahul Gandhi and Tejashwi Yadav”.
He was responding to a question on whether he sees a Maharashtra-like scenario playing in Bihar.
Although admitting that the two situations cannot be equated, Sushil Modi told ThePrint that JD(U) legislators are not comfortable with either Rahul Gandhi or Tejashwi Yadav because they had contested against the two parties in the past and had always seen them as political adversaries.
“Nitish Kumar broke off with the BJP without consulting his MLAs and that is why they are uncomfortable. There’s a rebellion waiting to happen,” he told ThePrint.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)