Bihar’s mahagathbandhan faces a make-or-break moment. The grand alliance was formed in the run-up to the 2015 Assembly elections when Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and the Congress joined hands and trumped the National Democratic Alliance led by the resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party.
On Friday, the Central Bureau of Investigation registered a case against Lalu Yadav, his wife Rabri Devi and son and Bihar Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav in connection with a alleged scam that occurred during Lalu Yadav’s tenure as Union railway minister in 2006. This has put the Rashtriya Janata Dal leaders in a spot – but Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in an even tighter one.
As Kumar now sits in Rajgir, 70 km away from Patna, holding discussions with senior party officials, there is intense speculation: will he give final shape to the ideological diversion he undertook two weeks ago by breaking Opposition ranks to extend support to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s presidential pick, Ram Nath Kovind, or will he stand by the Rashtriya Janata Party that let him become chief minister in 2015 despite the fact that it was the single-largest party in the state Assembly?
For now, Kumar has been silent on the crisis, and has instructed all Janata Dal (United) spokespersons to refrain from commenting on the matter.
What will Kumar do?
While Lalu Yadav claimed the CBI raids were a political “conspiracy done to tarnish” his image, and vowed to unite the Opposition parties against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, BJP leaders demanded that Kumar should promptly act against Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi, and snap ties with his alliance partner.
“Nitish should break his silence and sack Tejashwi Yadav,” said Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP. “I would like to thank Nitish Kumar because it was his party which first exposed this [charges against Lalu Prasad] in 2008.”
Clearly, the die is cast. If Kumar decides to follow the exhortations of BJP leaders, he will certainly continue to remain in office for the time being as his party will have enough votes in the state Assembly between itself and the BJP. The saffron outfit and Kumar share a history. Before 2015, the Janata Dal (United) ruled Bihar in alliance with the BJP till Kumar walked out ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
However, in the event that the current Bihar alliance breaks down and Kumar and Yadav go their own ways, it is not clear whether the BJP would work under the Janata Dal (United) for very long. After all, the BJP under Amit Shah is a party with far-reaching ambition. Should the alliance between the Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal crumble, some observers believe that the BJP will force a mid-term election in Bihar in the hope of emerging victorious against a divided Opposition.
What lies ahead?
However, if Kumar takes an ideological position against the BJP and stays with the alliance, he could turn the crisis into an opportunity to mend fences with the Opposition parties he abandoned when they chose a common candidate for this month’s presidential election.
Just before the CBI raids on Friday, Nitish Kumar seemed to be attempting to reinfuse the warmth into his relationship with Lalu Yadav. Even as the Bihar chief minister entered into a war of words with the Congress, he completely spared the Rashtriya Janata Dal from criticism.
On Monday, Kumar also declared his willingness to participate in the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s anti-BJP rally on August 27 if he was invited.
What is more, on Thursday, his party spokesman KC Tyagi reiterated the Janata Dal (United)’s commitment to staying with the Opposition on the vice-presidential election. “We had said our support to the NDA’s presidential candidate was a one-off, and we maintain that,” said Tyagi. “We would support the Opposition’s vice-presidential candidate.”
Kumar might take this process further or he might do yet another backflip and join hands with the BJP. If he does side with the saffron party, he will need to manage the section of his party leaders who were already uneasy on the question of supporting the BJP’s presidential nominee.