Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s scathing remarks about his ally, the Congress, at a government event on Monday grabbed headlines given that the previous week had seen much speculation about trouble in Bihar’s ruling alliance. But the most striking aspect of Kumar’s outburst was not that he publicly lashed out at the Congress, but that he has cunningly spared the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the single largest party in the mahagathbandhan.

In the state executive meeting of the Janata Dal-United on Sunday and a press conference on Monday, the Bihar chief minister used all his ammunition against the Congress, blaming it for failing to form a grand alliance in Uttar Pradesh and Assam against the BJP and uniting the Opposition around core issues such as farmer distress. Not a word was said against the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The omission has baffled the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was expecting a windfall gain with the destabilisation of the government, and has almost put to rest speculation of a political realignment in Bihar.

Signs of trouble

Murmurs about cracks in the alliance of the Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) picked up pace after the Bihar chief minister decided to support Ram Nath Kovind, the National Democratic Alliance’s pick for the presidential elections on July 17, even as the Opposition was mulling over putting up a candidate (and eventually picked former speaker Meira Kumar).

Both the Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav had criticised Nitish Kumar for breaking ranks. Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad accused him of being ruled “by several principles” and charged him of abandoning ideology in order to team with the BJP for the presidential election. Lalu Yadav said Nitish Kumar had made a “historic blunder” while Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi advised the Janata Dal-United leader against “political opportunism”.

Janata Dal (United)’s initial response fuelled talks of a growing rift within the alliance and the party’s spokeperson KC Tyagi hinted that the mahagathbandhan was on shakey ground and said that Nitish Kumar had been “more comfortable” with the BJP, with which his party was allied till 2014.

Cautious turn

However, just when the Bharatiya Janata Party was expecting Nitish Kumar to upset the apple cart, Nitish Kumar turned cautious. The Janata Dal (United) leader was so careful in dealing with the Rashtraya Janata Dal that he even declared his willingness to participate in the party’s anti-BJP rally on August 27 if he was invited. This was clearly a strategic move.

An attack on Lalu Yadav’s party may have left him with no option but to walk out of the grand alliance and try his luck at forming the government with the BJP, which has 53 seats in the Bihar Assembly. However, this would also mean venturing into uncertain terrain. The saffron party, in power at the Centre, is much stronger than it was when Nitish Kumar parted ways with it in 2013 and could have turned him down. Even if it chose not to lose the chance to form the government in Bihar, the BJP is unlikely to be keen on playing second fiddle to the chief minister and would assert more authority in the alliance.

For a shrewd politician with a history of dumping allies, Nitish Kumar’s restraint means that at least for now, he found merit in staying back with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. But by changing track just when the BJP was expecting him to cross over, the chief minister has come across as indecisive and ambivalent, which could hurt him in the long run.