On shaky ground after losing three bye-elections in four months, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is learnt to have sent feelers to Lalu Prasad Yadav about a possible reconciliation. The Rashtriya Janata Dal chief, in turn, has asked that Kumar first break the alliance his Janata Dal (United) has entered with the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The reports are expectedly being denied, but people with information about the situation said the poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who is back with Kumar, conveyed the message to Yadav.

Kumar and Yadav have been warring since the chief minister dismantled the mahagathbandan – the coalition of his party with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress which took power in 2015 – and allied with the BJP last year. Yadav’s imprisonment for corruption early this year, seen as political vendetta by the BJP, has only made the matters worse. Unsurprisingly, the Rashtriya Janata Dal is in no mood to embrace Kumar again.

There is, of course, enough time until next year’s general election for a realignment of political equations in Bihar. For now, however, it seems Kumar has little choice but to stick with the BJP and seek to strike a good bargain when the allies sit down to share seats. He appears to be already working on such a strategy as became evident last week when he had his party spokesperson KC Tyagi declare that Kumar will be the face of the National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP, in Bihar.

“The JD(U) is the bigger party with more MLAs,” Tyagi said. “Nitish Kumar has proved to be an efficient and popular chief minister. He is the big brother in Bihar just as Narendra Modi is on the national stage.”

The subtext of Tyagi’s declaration was clear: that the Janata Dal (United) deserves to contest more seats than the BJP in 2019, and the subsequent Assembly election, because it is numerically stronger in Bihar. Indeed, the party’s leaders never tire of pointing out that it has 71 legislators while the BJP is way behind with 53. “On the basis of these numbers, our party should get at least 140 seats in the Assembly election,” said a senior Janata Dal (United) leader who asked not to be identified. “Our share of Lok Sabha seats should also be decided on the basis of these numbers.”

He contended that the last general election, which the BJP swept on the back of the “Modi wave”, cannot inform seat-sharing for 2019. In 2014, the Janata Dal (United) won just two of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats, having contested alone after Kumar snapped ties with the BJP to protest Modi’s elevation as the saffron party’s prime ministerial candidate. The BJP won 22.

Emboldened by BJP’s losses

Now, though, Janata Dal (United) leaders believe the BJP is vulnerable after losing a string of bye-elections across the country. That the BJP has, for the first time, convened a meeting of its allies in Patna on June 7 is being seen as a sign that the saffron party is opening up to accommodating the interests of its partners. As such, the BJP’s other allies – Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party and Upendra Kushwaha of the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party – have also become more vocal.

While Paswan has demanded special status for Bihar and an ordinance to undo the Supreme Court’s dilution of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act, Kushwaha has advised the BJP to pay more attention to the National Democratic Alliance rather than the party’s own interests. Kushwaha is reportedly in contact with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and may jump ship if he feels the Opposition has an upper hand going into the election or if it offers him a better deal.

“All leaders are basically positioning themselves for 2019,” the senior Janata Dal (United) leader said. “Such efforts will only intensify in the coming days.”

The BJP is unlikely to find it hard to accommodate Paswan and Kushwaha who won six and three seats, respectively, in 2014. It is with Kumar that the party will run into a challenge. Janata Dal (United) leaders insist that the BJP should go the extra mile to accommodate its partners in Bihar since its poor showing in the Uttar Pradesh bye-elections has shown the saffron party is unlikely to replicate its performance from 2014, when it won 71 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the country’s largest state. “As compared to Uttar Pradesh, the NDA is on a stronger wicket in Bihar and is headed by a popular chief minister,” the senior leader said. “We should all try to maximise our gains here.”

Resolving differences

That may prove hard since the BJP does not take kindly to being pushed around by its allies. Moreover, the party is aware that despite his show of bravado, Kumar will not be negotiating from a position of strength. The BJP may be on the defensive after its recent electoral losses but Kumar has not fared any better either. The chief minister knows he needs a partner with a committed vote base as his own support, largely among the Kurmis, is not enough to ensure victory.

It is this realisation perhaps that leaders of both the Janata Dal (United) and the BJP are confident of resolving any differences over seat-sharing amicably. “Since we have decided to stay with the NDA, it won’t be a problem to arrive at a settlement on seats,” said Tyagi.

Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi of the BJP struck a conciliatory note as well but made it clear that Narendra Modi would be the face of the alliance. “Votes will be sought in Narendra Modi’s name and on the basis of Nitish Kumar’s work,” he said.