In a dramatic turn of events on Wednesday afternoon in Patna, Bihar's politics underwent a seismic shift, and to a large extent the politics at the Centre as well.
The denouement had a certain inevitability to it, however it’s the speed and manner in which events took place that caught most people by surprise.
In one fell swoop, Nitish Kumar not only walked out of the Bihar mahagathbandhan with the RJD and the Congress, but almost simultaneously walked into the arms of the BJP.
The break with the RJD, the PM’s tweet, and Nitish’s response followed by an offer of support, and a joint late night meeting of MLAs of the BJP and JD(U), all appeared scripted. And in doing so, it took some sheen off Nitish’s attempt to occupy the moral ground by resigning on the question of corruption.
भ्रष्टाचार के ख़िलाफ़ लड़ाई में जुड़ने के लिए नीतीश कुमार जी को बहुत-बहुत बधाई। सवा सौ करोड़ नागरिक ईमानदारी का स्वागत और समर्थन कर रहे हैं— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) July 26, 2017
Once the initial awe at Nitish’s dramatic resignation had subsided and given way to a more critical analysis of the turn of events and the dramatic personae involved, neither side came out smelling of roses.
At the root of the problem lies Lalu Prasad’s blind love for his family, and Nitish’s opportunism. Both have questions to answer.
If the RJD chief is as intent at keeping the BJP at bay as he would have the world believe, why did he not agree or allow son Tejaswi to resign from the government? Would he have been as obdurate had it been any other member of his party?
Why didn't Lalu nominate a senior member of his party to replace Tejaswi as the state’s deputy CM? Why imperil the state government and deliver a body blow to Opposition unity for the sake of your son?
Nitish has carefully tried to cast himself in the mould of a crusader against corruption. If that indeed is the case, why did he choose to tie-up with Lalu - and eventually form a government in Bihar with his support - despite the fact that the RJD chief stands convicted on charges of corruption in the fodder scam and cannot even contest an election for the next four years?
There is some merit in the questions that are being asked of the Bihar CM, that how is it morally and politically correct to align with somebody convicted of corruption (Lalu), but wrong to allow somebody to continue (Tejaswi) without even being convicted?
How is it politically and morally correct to align with a party (BJP) which allows Uma Bharati, a Union minister, to continue in the central government despite being chargesheeted in the Babri Masjid demolition case?
A minister in the BJP government in MP was made to quit his seat for falsifying his election returns and for indulging in paid news.
RJD chief Lalu appears to have learnt nothing from the past or from his trials and tribulations in the years he spent out of power on account of his involvement in the fodder scam. He squandered a providential second chance provided to him following the tie-up with JD(U) and the handsome victory in the Bihar elections. He placed a greater premium on nepotism, cronyism and dynasticism than on governance and probity.
In not doing what was expected of him - getting Tejaswi to resign - the RJD chief has brought greater problems upon himself. He now has to contend with not just a hostile government at the Centre but a BJP supported government in Patna, one that is unlikely to do him any favours.
The break up in Patna has also delivered a body blow to attempts to cobble together a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) at the Centre against the BJP. The move has been stymied at its very inception.
Going forward, at least in the immediate future, it will be very difficult for the Opposition to coalesce into a viable entity. The parting of ways in Bihar has also allowed Narendra Modi to wean away Nitish, who could possibly have emerged as the face of the Opposition to take him on in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
One fallout will be felt right away in the Rajya Sabha.
Nitish has walked into the arms of the BJP.
Now that the JD(U) is back in the NDA’s fold, it will further reduce the gap between the treasury and the Opposition in the Upper House, making it easier for the government to push through its legislative agenda in the Rajya Sabha.
Though the JD(U) has signed up to support Gopalkrishna Gandhi in the vice-presidential election, given the changed political equations it could even at the stage decide to vote for Venkaiah Naidu, the NDA candidate.
From the very beginning, despite the electoral alchemy, the RJD-JD(U) alliance was not borne out of conviction; it was more an arrangement necessitated by the fear of being decimated by Modi. Given the stark differences in their political approach and personalities, this wasn't a relationship destined to last.
The irrepressible Lalu is a flamboyant man of the masses. Nitish in contrast is more low-key, sober and measured in his approach. Lalu commands the stage and the crowds in a manner few (other than Modi) can. Nitish is extremely image conscious, lays great store by good governance and probity in public life, while for the RJD chief power is a means to an end.
For the past few months, there had been straws in the wind pointing to the changes in the offing - Nitish’s decision to support the Modi government’s demonetisation drive as well as NDA's presidential candidate Ram Nath Kovind, after having personally goaded the Congress to play a proactive role in ensuring that the Opposition puts up a joint candidate. Also, his decision to turn down the invite for the Opposition party’s dinner yet fly out to attend a lunch hosted by the PM the very next day.
Yet most people believed, which now turns out in vain, that eventually both Nitish and Lalu would see reason.
Nitish was till not long ago being spoken of as a potential PM candidate. However, given the fractitious nature of the Opposition’s politics, its lack of strategic vision and inability to rein in vaulting ambitions, he decided to give up on them and chose to tie up with the BJP, something he had sworn 20 months ago that he would never do.
In doing so, Nitish may not only have shut the door on his return to the Opposition fold forever, he may also have kissed his chances of playing a lead role at the Centre goodbye. A man who could have possibly been PM has chosen to limit himself to being a CM.