On June 29, the Janata Dal (United) took two major decisions in its executive committee meeting. The party appointed a new working president and passed a resolution asking the Centre to announce a special status for Bihar or grant it a special financial package.

While special status for Bihar is a long standing demand of the party, it has for the first time proposed an alternative in the form of a special financial package.

The newly appointed working president Sanjay Jha said after the meeting that the alternative was added to the resolution because the Finance Commission had done away with the idea of giving special status to states. “The purpose is that Bihar must get central assistance, whatever be the name,” Jha said.

But many saw in the move, a softening of the JD(U)’s stance, which they connected to the new working president’s background. Jha was earlier a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party and still has good relations with his former outfit.

Last month, the Janata Dal (United) performed better than most predictions in the Lok Sabha elections, winning 12 of the 16 seats it contested in Bihar, equal to the BJP’s tally in the state. The results have made the party an indispensable ally for the BJP, which fell short of the half-way mark in the Lok Sabha and now depends on its allies to hold on to power at the Centre.

But contrary to what many expected, the Janata Dal (United) has not asserted its clout within the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. The party has just one minister in the Union Cabinet, which largely wears the same look as of the previous council of ministers when the BJP alone held a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha.

Political observers told Scroll that despite the Janata Dal (United)’s good showing in the Lok Sabha polls, the party is on shaky grounds when it comes to organisational strength and succession plans after Kumar.

Once a staunch detractor of Narendra Modi, Kumar tried to touch the prime minister’s feet at the meeting of the NDA parliamentary party held in early June. This is the second time he has done so this year.

Even during the elections, Kumar made a series of faux pas in his election speeches, which observers attributed to his deteriorating health. Political observers say this has made him dependent on a coterie of his trusted leaders like Jha who are close to the BJP.

What’s at stake for Nitish Kumar?

But many argue that ill-health alone doesn’t explain Kumar’s tilt towards the BJP. A shrewd politician, Kumar sees an alliance with the BJP as a safe bet in the lead up to the Bihar Assembly polls next year, they say.

“If you are confused about Nitish Kumar’s actions, look at what suits his prospects to remain chief minister,” said senior journalist Arun Sinha, the author of a book that traces Kumar’s rise to power.

“Every time he [Kumar] has switched over from BJP to the Rashtriya Janata Dal or the other way round it has been because he felt his position was under threat,” Sinha said. “Right now, he feels that staying with the BJP keeps his position safe.”

DM Diwakar, former director of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies in Patna, concurred with this argument. “Nitish ji floated the [Opposition alliance] INDIA bloc, but then quit the alliance because there was no consensus on making him the convenor,” Diwakar said. “He has never been comfortable with doubts over his position.”

Kumar has no reason to play hardball with the BJP now since it has assured him of being the chief minister face in the Bihar Assembly elections scheduled to be held in 2025, Diwakar added. “He will play along with whatever the BJP says and does till the elections,” he said.

But what happens after the elections? Will Kumar have more bargaining powers within the alliance if he pulls off another victory?

Former Janata Dal (United) MP Pavan Varma thinks that is not the case. He told Scroll that the Janata Dal (United) was lacking in organisational strength and ran the risk of being “cannibalised by the BJP and the Rashtriya Janata Dal”.

Varma was the national general secretary of the Janata Dal (United) until he was expelled from the party in 2020 after he criticised Kumar’s decision to support the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act.

Varma said Kumar’s frequent ideological flip flops and poor governance had dented his credibility and popularity. “It is the popularity of Modi and the ground presence of the BJP that helped the Janata Dal (United) win the number of seats it did [in the Lok Sabha elections],” Varma told Scroll. “After the Bihar elections next year, Kumar will be very much dispensable and so will be his party as there is no succession plan within the Janata Dal (United).”

Varma’s views were echoed by Shivanand Tiwari, another former member of the Janata Dal (United). Tiwari joined the Rashtriya Janata Dal in 2017 after being expelled from the Janata Dal (United) for alleged anti-party activities.

He said that the appointment of Jha as working president showed that the BJP had turned the Janata Dal (United) “into its puppet”.

“Had Nitish ji stayed with the INDIA alliance, he could have become the prime minister,” Tiwari said. “Today, what is his stature? He has been reduced to touching Modi’s feet. It is only a matter of time before the BJP eats up the Janata Dal (United). The process has already started with Jha’s appointment.”

What goes into Kumar’s future actions?

In limiting his interests to hold on to the chief minister’s position in Bihar, Kumar has left himself with little leg room in the alliance with BJP and he is likely to continue being dictated on terms set by the Hindutva party, many observers said.

Diwakar of the AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies said that Kumar can no longer afford the belligerence he once showed by walking out of the National Democratic Alliance when it chose Modi as its prime minister candidate ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

“He [Kumar] will now have to relent to things which may have been non-negotiable in the past, like diluting the demand of special status for Bihar,” Diwakar said.

Bihar has been seeking special status since 2005 Kumar was first sworn in as its chief minister. The state has argued that it suffered losses in revenue after the mineral-rich Jharkhand was carved out of its southern region in 2000.

For states that have special category status, the Centre covers 90% of the cost of centrally sponsored schemes as against 60% for other states. The 14th Finance Commission, whose recommendations came into effect in 2015, had ruled out the provision of special category status to any state. Despite that, Kumar and the Janata Dal (United) have been raising the demand for several years.

Senior journalist Ajit Anjum told Scroll that the demand now being diluted to that of a special financial package showed that Kumar alone was not calling the shots in the Janata Dal (United). “He is now relying on his aides like Jha, Ashok Choudhary and Lalan Singh all of whom are close to the BJP,” he said. Choudhary is a member of the legislative council in Bihar, while Singh is a Lok Sabha MP and minister in the Union cabinet.

Anjum added that another reason why the power centre has shifted within the Janata Dal (United) is the deteriorating health of Kumar. “Anybody who knows about Bihar politics will tell you that Kumar has not been keeping well,” Anjum said. “This makes the party’s future actions even more unpredictable because there is no clear succession plan. Leaders like Jha, Choudhary and Singh have their personal ambitions and it boils down to whom the BJP sees as their man in Janata Dal (United).”

Former Janata Dal (United) MP Varma also cited Kumar’s health as a major factor in the near future of Bihar politics, saying that the party could disintegrate even before the Bihar elections if the chief minister’s condition worsens over the next year.