Completing the process that began with vacating and then re-occupying the Bihar chief minister’s office in about 15 hours, Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal (United) have now become a part of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance. The man who was once projected as the potential prime ministerial candidate for a grand anti-BJP alliance will now be one of the lesser leaders in a political set-up where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah are miles ahead of everyone else.

In the estimation of some, Kumar has given up on the ambitious but challenging task of leading a diverse set of parties from across the country in taking on the BJP electoral juggernaut. Instead, the Bihar chief minister has settled for a safer post, one where he does not have to go up against the Shah-Modi combine – while having to junk his plans of building a national presence in the bargain.

‘Tallest regional leader’

But what does being a non-BJP leader in the NDA actually mean?

The ‘tallest regional leader’ position was a stock feature of Indian politics throughout the coalition era, between 1989 and 2014. In later years, whoever fit into the role was usually given the freedom to pick the railway minister – a post that the leader themselves often occupied. This is how the Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav and Kumar himself made their mark on national politics, even as their electoral base might have been confined to one state.

That position does not seems to exist any more. There may be no better signifier of the lack of the ‘tallest regional leader’ position following 2014 than the cauterisation of the Railway Ministry. It is still one of the more important ministries, but the government ended the British Raj-era tradition of a separate Railway Budget. If and when India does return to a coalition phase, the opportunity to grandstand a few days before the Budget and announce new trains no longer exists.

BJP behemoth

That however is just a symptom. The real reason there does not seem to be an equivalent under the current dispensation is the success of the BJP in the 2014 elections. That year, for the first time in three decades, the saffron party got a simple majority in the Lok Sabha by itself. If it wanted to, it could have formed the government without any alliance partner. The subsequent success of the BJP electoral engine has given the BJP even less reason to spend its time thinking of allies.

So what does Nitish Kumar have to look forward to as an “important” alliance partner?

Consider the current NDA leaders who are not from the BJP.

  • Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, of the Telugu Desam Party was once a popular national leader who famously made news for technological innovation. These days he is barely heard about outside the state, not least because the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh has forced him to focus on building up the new Andhra.
  • Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, of the People’s Democratic Party, has spent the last few months pushing back against the Centre’s attempts to appropriate more power over the state, while the middle ground for political discourse in Kashmir collapses. Mufti is well known outside her state, but only because of the constant crises that have dogged her tenure as chief minister.
  • Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray whose party is in an alliance with the BJP in Maharashtra. Thackeray, aware that his party’s base is in serious danger of being eroded by the BJP, has spent most of his time sounding like an Opposition leader than one in government.
  • Union Minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan, of the Lok Janshakti Party, is possibly the only non-BJP leader whose stature has continued to grow under the NDA. But this is in part because the LJP is relatively small, and does not pose any threat to the overall ambitions of the BJP.
  • Parkash Singh Badal, of the Shiromani Akali Dal, had some influence over the government until his party was routed in Punjab elections this year. But even when it was in power, the SAD was frequently tussling with the BJP over local politics, especially because the state unit of the BJP believes it can grow further if it was not hemmed in by the Badals.
  • Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling of the Sikkim Democratic Front has been in power since 1994 but is almost entirely confined to his own state, with little presence beyond.
  • Nagaland Chief Minister TR Zeliang of the Naga People’s Front is similarly focused primarily on his own state, in part because his hold on the party, ostensibly a part of the NDA, seems tenuous.

Consolation prize

There might have been a time when Chandrababu Naidu or even Uddhav Thackeray might have taken the role of the tallest non-BJP leader in the NDA. Instead, they have spent much of their time mired in local crises and struggling to fend off erosion of their own base from a triumphant BJP under Amit Shah, who has in the past called on his local units to not depend on any ally.

Chances are, Nitish Kumar will face the same issue in Bihar. Though he comes in with a much bigger national stature and is likely to see his party included in the Cabinet, his party, the Janata Dal (United) is in a precarious position. Kumar’s JD(U) has never won an election without alliance partners and, especially with a portion of his supporters likely to follow Sharad Yadav over to the Lalu Yadav camp, it is likely he will have to protect his flock from a muscle-flexing BJP too.

Kumar may yet end up as the tallest non-BJP leader in the NDA flock, especially with the saffron party using him as a key player in its anti-corruption narrative. But in a landscape dominated by colossuses like Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, being the best of the rest may not count for very much.