As the results of the bye-elections to the 13 Lok Sabha and Assembly seats trickled in on Thursday, the focus was understandably on the Kairana seat in Uttar Pradesh, where a united Opposition registered a comprehensive victory over the Bharatiya Janata Party. However, while the BJP has been an obvious loser in these polls – winning only three of the 13 seats that went to the polls on May 28 – the results have also come as a big setback to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar.

His party, the Janata Dal (United), lost the Jokihat Assembly seat to the Rashtriya Janata Dal in what was seen as a prestige battle for Kumar. This is the third electoral defeat for the party since it walked out of its alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress last year to align with the BJP. In March, Kumar’s party lost the Araria Lok Sabha constituency and the Jehanabad Assembly seat to the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

The results must be particularly galling for Kumar as the defeat has come at the hands of Tejaswi Yadav – the 29-year-old son of Lalu Yadav – who took charge of the Rashtriya Janata Party earlier this year after his father was jailed following his conviction in four fodder scam cases. While the results have undoubtedly enhanced Tejaswi Yadav’s image, they also indicate that Lalu Yadav cannot be written off just yet; he remains a major factor in Bihar politics, and his influence has not waned despite the fact that he is in prison. On the contrary, Lalu Yadav is increasingly being seen as a victim of political vendetta, which has helped consolidate his support base among the Yadavs and Bihar’s minorities.

However, attempting to downplay his party’s defeat in Jokihat, Janata Dal (United) spokesperson KC Tyagi said that the victory wasn’t the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s, and could be attributed to the “Taslimuddin factor”. This is a reference to the late Rashtriya Janata Dal veteran who represented the Araria Lok Sabha seat that Jokihat is part of. Taslimuddin died last September after which his son Sarfaraj Alam – the Jokihat MLA from the Janata Dal (United) – switched sides to the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and won the March bye-election to his father’s seat. On Thursday, his younger brother, Shahnawaj Alam, also with the Rashtriya Janata Dal, handsomely won the Jokihat seat that Sarfaraj Alam had vacated.

“Nitish Kumar’s acceptability and popularity remains intact and the coming elections will prove this,” added Tyagi.

Personal setback for Kumar

Whatever the explanations, the Janata Dal (United)’s defeat in Jokihat comes as a personal setback for Kumar, whose halo has diminished ever since he tied up with the BJP. Before this move, Kumar was emerging as the possible prime ministerial candidate of a united Opposition. As a major advocate of Opposition unity, Kumar had established an excellent rapport with non-BJP leaders including Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party.

Now, Kumar is a pale shadow of his old self. Once hailed for his administrative skills, he has little to show for himself except for prohibition, which he imposed in the state in 2016. There is no doubt that he is losing the perception battle. Not only has he lost his chance at the national level, he is having a tough time dealing with the BJP in his home state. Unlike their earlier stint together, when Kumar established himself as the senior partner in the coalition, he now has to deal with a BJP that is far more assertive today.

The bye-poll results will further reduce Kumar’s bargaining power with the BJP, both in the daily functioning of the state government but also in the seat-sharing negotiations for the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The BJP will demand a larger share of seats on the basis of its performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, when the saffron party and its allies won 31 of the 40 seats in Bihar. In comparison, the Janata Dal (United) won only two. Kumar, on the other hand, is likely to cite his party’s performance in the 2015 Assembly polls, when his party bagged 71 of the state’s 243 seats. The simmering tensions between the two parties are bound to escalate as the BJP is unlikely to give in to Kumar.

The BJP’s confidence stems from the fact that it is presently the lead player on the national political stage while others are desperately trying to pull it down. In contrast to former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was more accommodative with allies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are far tougher, and do not like being pushed around by their coalition partners. This was clear when the BJP leadership refused to bend to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s demands, and allowed him to walk out of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in March.

‘Allies feeling isolated’

On Thursday, KC Tyagi called on the BJP to focus on its allies. He told India Today that allies of the National Democratic Alliance are feeling isolated and a united strategy is needed to win the 2019 general elections. “UP [Uttar Pradesh] results are alarming,” said Tyagi. “[The] coming together of two big regional parties of the state, Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party, and western UP’s influential party RLD [Rashtriya Lok Dal], is a big challenge. There is a need to bring changes in demeanour and work to expand our mass base especially with the farmers.”

The BJP lost both the Kairana Lok Sabha constituency and the Noorpur Assembly seat in the May 28 bye-elections. Coming shortly after the BJP’s defeat in the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bye-polls in March, the Kairana verdict is being seen as yet another instance of the challenge posed to the saffron party by a united Opposition ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha election.

Talking about the lessons from the bye-polls, Tyagi said: “Naidu has left, Shiv Sena is fighting against the BJP in Palghar, Akali Dal is unhappy, Indian National Lok Dal, our old ally, also left us, Mehbooba Mufti’s concerns are not taken seriously. It is our suggestion that there should be effective campaign with those left in the NDA to make 2019 victory possible.”

Nitish Kumar too has also sought to exert pressure on the BJP. He recently criticised the prime minister’s decision to demonetise high-value currency notes and, taking a cue from his Andhra Pradesh counterpart, has again pressed his demand for special status for Bihar. He has also made noises about the Centre’s apathy to Bihar and how the state was not getting its share of financial support. Kumar’s statements are essentially meant to revive his sagging image and restore his lost credibility with the electorate.

At the same time, despite his strained relations with the BJP, Kumar has little choice but to continue with this partnership. He cannot afford to walk out as it will destabilise his government. There is talk that the Bihar chief minister may seek to mend fences with the Rashtriya Janata Dal but that appears to be a remote possibility at present.