Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar delivered a political bombshell on Wednesday. After weeks of shaky relations between his party, the Janata Dal (United) and its alliance partner, Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, Kumar resigned. With this act, Kumar closed a chapter on one of the few bright spots for the Opposition political parties that have attempted to unite in the face of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s onslaught across the Hindi heartland.

The Mahagatbandhan – grand alliance – brought together arch-rivals JD(U) and RJD, with Congress as junior partner, and its remarkable victory over the BJP in 2015 suggested there was a way to take on the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine. Wednesday’s development puts this in danger, especially after it later emerged that Kumar would be joining hands with the BJP to form a new government.

In some ways, Nitish Kumar has been here before. After his party’s dismal performance in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, Kumar stepped down as Bihar’s chief minister and handed the reins over to fellow JD(U) leader Jitan Ram Manjhi. Although that move was announced as him taking responsibility for the JD(U)‘s poor results in the Lok Sabha polls, Kumar was also sending a message to Yadav who at the time was reluctant to unite with his political rival to take on the BJP.

Less than a year later, as it became clear that Manjhi was looking beyond Kumar and that the RJD had been convinced of the need to unite, he took over again as chief minister. Kumar would then lead the grand alliance to a victory in 2015, giving anti-BJP parties everywhere the hope that Bihar might provide a template that could be expanded to the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

Grand alliance pitfalls

But that path was always laden with mines. Kumar’s previous terms as chief minister, with the BJP as his ally, had been built on the idea that he would eradicate the corruption that was rampant in Yadav’s years running Bihar. Yet now he was endangering that image by joining hands with the very party he had spent years vilifying. Even more problematic for Kumar was the pesky fact that the RJD actually won more seats than him in the 2015 Bihar elections.

Even as Kumar, and the rest of the Opposition looked at the broader picture leading up to 2019, the two other players in Bihar took a more local approach. The RJD, with no question of the corruption-convicted Lalu Yadav becoming the face of any broader alliance, focused instead on building its base in the state, and launching Tejashwi Yadav, Lalu’s son, who became deputy chief minister.

The BJP, meanwhile, aware of the JD(U)‘s insecurities regarding the growing clout of the RJD, took aim at the weakest link in the alliance – corruption allegations against the Yadavs that could taint Kumar’s image. In March 2017, a huge blow was struck against Opposition hopes that it might be able to win in 2019, after a Congress-Samajwadi Party alliance was routed in Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The BJP’s massive victory there dashed many hopes about the Bihar model being replicated.

Post Uttar Pradesh

Following that win, the Central Bureau of Investigation and Income Tax officials seemed to swing into action, taking aim at the Congress as well as politicians skeptical of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and – worryingly for Kumar – in Bihar. Raids on Tejashwi Yadav and a First Information Report accusing him of corruption put Kumar in a serious bind.

The BJP was able to attack him for not acting on corruption within his own government. The RJD meanwhile insisted the accusations were a “political vendetta”, and refused to back down. Stuck in between, Kumar seemed at risk of being squeezed out altogether – turning Bihar into a BJP vs RJD state.

And so, on Wednesday, he resigned. “On my part, I tried to hold the grand alliance together as much as I could,” Kumar said. “We had followed the Gathbandhan Dharma and had tried to protect it. But now my conscience does not allow me to continue.”

Later in the day, the BJP announced that it would be joining with the JDU to form a new government in Bihar.

Where does that leave the various players?

  • Janata Dal (United): Nitish Kumar’s party is somewhat at sea right now, even though it has picked a side. The BJP may once again be Kumar’s ally, but he will fear what is left of his base being divided between the saffron party and the RJD. Kumar has made his big move, sending messages to other parties and the public at large. How it will be received, however, remains to be seen.
  • Rashtriya Janata Dal: Lalu Prasad Yadav’s party is on somewhat stronger ground in the long run in Bihar, as it can now even clearer carve out its position as being anti-BJP both in the state and nationally. But the corruption charges are not going to go away, and alliance partners in other parts of the country might not be comfortable embracing the party unless it addresses the graft charges. There will still be pressure on Tejashwi Yadav to account for the accusations. How the RJD does this will be instructive.
  • Bharatiya Janata Party: The saffron party has managed to break the grand alliance just two years into its reign, pulling apart the one proper victory for anti-BJP opposition forces. It will inevitably continue to grow in the state, on the back of the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a strong local unit. But it will have to calibrate its relationship with the JD(U), since Kumar will certainly be wary of the BJP trying to absorb his base.
  • Congress: Sonia Gandhi’s party was supposed to help glue the two Bihar rivals together, thanks to its influence outside the state, but the party has almost seemed invisible through this crisis. Kumar seemed to say as much when he resigned, suggesting that the party barely intervened. If the party hoped to be the anchor for some sort of 2019 fightback, its ineptness is even more on display on a day like this. Will it be able to pick up the pieces?