Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s decision to back the Bharatiya Janata Party’s presidential nominee, instead of the Opposition candidate, led to a tug of war on the issue between him and his alliance partners this past week. The battle may have ended for now, with the ruling alliance in Bihar safe, but the question remains whether Kumar will ever regain eminence among Opposition parties.

Kumar had become the mascot of the anti-BJP alliance in the run up to the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections. He led a broad-based alliance – which included Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress – to trounce the saffron outfit in the state. The stature he gained thus led to him harbour clear national ambitions. He was even discussed as a possible Opposition candidate for the post of prime minister in 2019.

However, Kumar’s somersault on the crucial issue of the presidential election has jolted his allies. He is now seen as undependable and also as one who is not essentially averse to the Hindutva project of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh despite his personal differences with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Veiled warning

Tuesday’s statement by Janata Dal (United) leader KC Tyagi that the party’s former ally, the BJP, “never made us feel uneasy at any stage” came across as a display of ideological bankruptcy, almost bordering on political blackmail. It was clearly aimed at silencing Kumar’s allies following his decision to support Ram Nath Kovind, and not the Opposition’s nominee, Meira Kumar.

Prior to 2015, the Janata Dal (United) ruled Bihar in alliance with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance till Kumar walked out ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Tyagi’s outburst was preceded by a series of remarks from senior RJD and Congress leaders against Kumar’s decision to back Kovind. While RJD chief Lalu Prasad criticised the Bihar chief minister for “a historic blunder” last week, his son and Bihar deputy CM Tejashwi advised the Janata Dal (United) leader against “political opportunism” on Sunday.

Making matters worse, on Monday, Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad, made a veiled attack on Kumar, accusing him of being ruled “by several principles”, and charging him of abandoning ideology in order to team up with the BJP for the presidential election.

Just when it seemed that the name-calling would devour the secular alliance, both Kumar and Lalu Yadav patched up suddenly. They reined in their respective spokespersons to give the impression that all is well in Bihar’s ruling alliance.

The message is clear – if the break up would have meant a loss of power for the Rashtriya Janata Dal, it would have meant drifting onto totally uncertain turf for the Janata Dal (United).

Many Janata Dal (United) leaders admit that a fresh alliance with the BJP would not be the same as it used to be before Kumar walked out of the National Democratic Alliance in June 2013, bringing an end to a 17-year-long relationship.

In the event of the secular alliance breaking in Bihar, Kumar would have enough votes to remain in office had he opted to join hands with the BJP. But it is questionable whether a resurgent BJP would have worked under the Janata Dal (United) for long as it did before the Lok Sabha election. Most of the Janata Dal (United) leaders this reporter spoke to said that the BJP, under party president Amit Shah, is a party with new ambitions, and its chances of using Kumar’s detachment from his secular allies to force a mid-term election in the hope of coming out victorious vis-à-vis the divided opposition were not being ruled out.

Damaged credibility?

So far, the ideological diversion Kumar undertook on the question of the presidential election is unlikely to destabilise the state government. However, it has severely damaged his national ambitions. After all, Kumar was part of the game when the Opposition parties decided to field its own presidential candidate. By deciding to support Kovind, he has sent out the message that Opposition unity can be demolished when its constituents are offered attractive incentives, and that despite his differences with Modi, he is generally not antagonistic to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

In political terms, baffling his allies – as well as his opponents – has been the main source of strength for Kumar. He used this strategy even while he was an ally of the BJP (in the last presidential election he supported Congress nominee Pranab Mukherjee). But times have changed. In an atmosphere of utmost uncertainty, trust does gain importance even in politics.