Lalu agreed to an alliance with Nitish but refused to accept him as the CM candidate. He said, “We will select the leader after election results.” Nitish told Mulayam and the other leaders that the alliance could win only if he was projected as the CM: vagueness would only make people think that Lalu was going to have control and his “jungle raj” would return.

Mulayam and the other leaders spoke to Lalu again, but he resisted the proposal. He said Nitish and he had been political rivals. Their constituencies had crossed swords in many elections. The Yadavs, his primary base, would not easily agree to support Nitish, a Kurmi, as the CM candidate. The Muslims, his other base, would be even more reluctant to do so. If Nitish was announced as the CM candidate before elections, the Yadavs and Muslims might not wholeheartedly support the alliance. In order to get their full support, he argued, they should not name any CM candidate; they should choose one after the polls.

Nitish knew this was not the real reason why Lalu was refusing to name him the CM candidate. “Woh chahate the ki humko mutthi mein rakhein, hum unki ichha se chalein [He wanted me to be his puppet, to do what he wanted],” Nitish told me. After a few weeks, Nitish gave up. At that moment, he received a proposal from Rahul Gandhi to form an alliance with the Congress, independent of the RJD, for the Bihar Assembly polls.

He had a meeting with Rahul, during which they agreed to fight the polls together. Nitish knew that with this alliance the fight was going to be triangular and that the BJP would profit from the division in the Opposition’s votes. “But I decided to take the risk,” he said.

Mulayam Singh and the heads of the other Janata Dal splinter groups were alarmed. A JD(U)-Congress alliance would be the last nail in the coffin of the yet-to-be-born Samajwadi Janata Dal. Mulayam called Nitish and Lalu for a discussion at his residence in New Delhi to resolve differences, but Lalu would still not agree to go to polls with Nitish as the CM candidate. Nitish came away from the meeting convinced that he had taken the right decision to go with the Congress.

But after he left, Mulayam and Sharad Yadav warned Lalu of the risks Nitish’s alliance with the Congress posed to his party and the Janata Dal merger. Lalu gave in with great reluctance. On 8 June 2015, Mulayam, flanked by Sharad and Lalu, announced to the media that Nitish was going to be the CM candidate of the JD(U)–RJD alliance. When Lalu was asked by the media why he agreed to it, he said, “I am willing to drink all types of poison in order to crush the cobra of communalism.”

Nitish, who was back in Patna, was baffled and distressed by the news. In anguish, he did not come out of his house for four days, receiving no visitors, holding no meetings. He had closed the RJD chapter and made up his mind to go with the Congress. According to senior JD(U) leaders, he did really want to go with the Congress. He believed that would change the course of Indian politics.

The alliance would have catapulted him into mainstream national politics, opening up the chances for him to be the PM, with several parties wanting to oust Modi joining it. The announcement by the three Goliath Yadavs threatened to shatter his dream.

Mulayam and Sharad kept urging Nitish daily to accept the offer. He was in a fix: if he accepted the offer, he would lose primacy in the alliance with the Congress, as the RJD had been a Congress ally for many years. Also, he would lose the direct equation and parity with Rahul Gandhi; he would lose the chance of emerging as the nucleus of the Opposition.

On the other hand, an alliance with the RJD had its advantages: no scattering of backward-caste votes, zero waste of Muslim votes, higher chances of victory and the scope for a national political trajectory reduced but not closed to him with the Congress also in alliance. At the end of four days of mental churning, he accepted the offer.

In the Assembly elections five months later, the JD(U)-RJD-Congress alliance pulped the BJP. They captured 178 of the 243 seats. They wrested back their fort from Modi within a year. Nitish was celebrated as a hero, as a vanquisher of Modi, the giant. He had once again emerged as the fittest challenger to Modi in 2019. Things were going fine for him, until he realised, only a few months into his new tenure, that his alliance with the RJD might not last very long.

Since the time the JD(U)–RJD government was formed, Lalu had missed no opportunity to remark that even though his party had a larger number of MLAs (80) than the JD(U) (71), he had “made” Nitish the CM because he had made that commitment before the elections. And he never forgot to add that he had to make that commitment as he could not fight elections owing to his conviction in the fodder scam, and since his two sons were too young to be claimants to the CM’s office. That made it look like Nitish was the CM owing to circumstances and not because of his leadership ability or political strength. Some RJD leaders frequently echoed Lalu’s views.

“Knowing Lalu’s anarchic nature, I was prepared for some amount of gadbad, some disorderliness and confusion that he might cause in the administration,” Nitish told me. “But things soon started going too far.”

A top bureaucrat recalled:

“Rogues who had enjoyed political patronage during Lalu-Rabri’s fifteen-year reign started raising their heads again. They felt their government was back. Lalu would tell everybody, ‘Ab hamara chalega [My word will prevail now].’ He got his two sons – Tejaswi Yadav, who was deputy chief minister and held several portfolios, including the Public Works Department, and Tej Pratap Yadav, who too held several portfolios, including health – as well as other ministers from his party to do his bidding. He would directly give instructions to the officers of the departments of his sons and other party ministers. He would even telephone police sub-inspectors to ask them to favour someone. The impression Lalu wanted to create was that Nitish was the king by his grace: he was senior, Nitish was junior; Nitish had the government, he had the power.”

Excerpted with permission from The Battle for Bihar: Nitish Kumar and the Theatre of Power, Arun Sinha, Penguin Books.