How Nitish Kumar, the Chanakya of Bihar, had long plotted to dump Lalu Yadav

The orchestrated manner in which Bihar CM made his big political move and joined hands with BJP tells a gripping story.

 |  11-minute read |   27-07-2017
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What Nitish Kumar has done beats the triple acts I had recently seen in a series of videos a friend had WhatsApped of The Great Moscow circus performance at Johannesburg in March.

The rubber man Ebin Abudllaev could virtually wrap himself around his own torso and unwind. Mexico born juggler - Juan Pablo Martinez had innumerable items flying in front of him – not one falling from his two hands and a trapeze artist who in a death-defying act, would jump from a perch high above and swing to another perch and back.

Nitish's three-acts-in-one had flair. And, a moral geo-position. And Nitish hopes like in the past, he may emerge unscathed, and more importantly victorious.

Too many coincidences indicate an arrangement. Bihar is an additional charge for Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi of West Bengal. He had deferred his visit to the Kolkata Raj Bhawan on Wednesday to be in Patna when Nitish Kumar needed to make his next big political move with tyre-burning speed.

The BJP parliamentary board, the party's supreme decision-making body schedule to meet exactly one hour after Nitish went to meet the governor to resign – coincidence again?

He resigned at around 6pm to announce his divorce with Lalu Yadav and within three hours the suitor - PM Narendra Modi - the man whom Nitish had opposed for years - was serenading him on Twitter.

An hour later, like quintessential "baaraatis" (people in a marriage procession), the BJP Bihar MLAs were at his house. A quick engagement later, they were at the doors of the "Qazi", the state governor in charge - Keshari Nath Tripathi, who didn't even refer to the star and planetary positions to announce a marriage ceremony scheduled within 24 hours allowing Nitish to remarry the BJP.

He could have done what ordinary politicians usually do. He had carefully built up a corruption narrative to press the Mahagathbandhan destruct button. And switch allies. If Tejashwi Yadav's continuation in the deputy CM's seat were the contention, he could have sacked Lalu Yadav's son. An unrelenting Lalu would have declared divorce and withdrawn support. Congress, the third party in the alliance, could have chosen Lalu over him. The BJP waiting no more in the shadows would have shouted "Yes!" to support him instantly.

Going by this chain of presumed events, he didn't need to resign. But resign he did. Why?

A senior JD(U) leader offered the key.

He said, "If Nitish had sacked Tejashwi, Lalu and his heir-apparent son would have become martyrs. Last time Lalu went to jail in the fodder scam, the Yadav and Muslim vote consolidated around him. Nitish, by resigning, took away that advantage. He, at least for public consumption, could take an "Atma ki awaaz" ("voice of the conscience") high moral ground."

The resignation also killed the Mahagathabandhan instantly, opening the doors for the BJP to come in quickly. If Nitish had simply sacked his deputy, Lalu and the RJD might have taken time to withdraw support, allowing the divorced allies more time to regroup and redraw strategy.

This is why the inference that the switch from Lalu to PM Modi was in the works for long. There are visible dots to join now.


Tilting towards Modi

Nitish had already backed PM Modi on the note-ban issue in November 2016. Before that, he had rejected the stand taken by Mahagathabandhan allies - RJD and Congress - on the September 2016 surgical strikes. There were no charges against Lalu Yadav or his kin at that time. Rewind further. He had gone for the note-ban-like disruptive liquor ban soon after coming to power. RJD was never on the same label when it came to prohibition.

So was Nitish plotting this all along, or at least had this as the Plan B for future politics, right from the moment he had held out his hand to Lalu Yadav? The Bihar CM's inner voice knows the best, but the answer could be yes. Here's a brief timeline of events that could shed light on Nitish's not-so-sudden volte-face.

A timeline of turnarounds

PM Modi became the BJP's chosen one on June 9, 2013. Nitish opted for the secular, high moral ground and walked out of the NDA on June 16, just a week later.

By September that year, Lalu Yadav was found guilty by a Ranchi court in the fodder scam and sent to jail. That put Lalu Yadav out of the contention for the CM post, since he was barred from contesting polls for the next six years.

Modi led the BJP to become the Prime Minister on May 16, 2014. But with Lalu no longer a challenger for the CM's post and his loyal Yadav and Muslim voters consolidating around him, Nitish, the astute politician that he is, read the situation perfectly. Modi's rise had increased the hunger among parties to dump differences to come together, especially the Congress. The grand old party on the decline acted as a bridge - the Mahagathbandhan was born which had no one else but Nitish to lead it in Bihar in 2015.

He ignored the corruption cases against Lalu Yadav and chose the "secular" plank. BJP, which in its 17-odd-year-alliance with the JD(U) had become Nitish's B-team, made mistakes, but it never had the firepower to challenge the Grand Alliance. Nitish, the consummate politician, came to power again.

But there were a few glitches. One, Lalu Yadav wanted to use the alliance government to build the RJD generation next, mentoring his sons Tejashwi and Tejvir. Two, Lalu, despite Nitish being the face of the alliance, won more seats. He was the dominating player, and the RJD and its cadre were going to be difficult allies. Barely a few hours before Nitish resigned, Lalu told the press, "I made the Mahagathbandhan. I made Nitish CM." Lalu Yadav always gave the impression that if Nitish was the king, he was the king-maker.

History of discord 

The root of the development also lies in the age-old rivalry between the two products of Jayaprakash Narayan-heralded student movement of 70s - Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav.

Despite corruption cases, Lalu's political clout was wider than Nitish. To emerge as the most influential leader beyond being the most acceptable face, Nitish needed to weaken the hand that helped him to power in 2015.

Nitish needed to trim down the spheres of influence under Lalu, his family, and his party. On the secular wicket or the electoral turf, Nitish couldn't have beaten Lalu. In the alliance game, Lalu has a better rapport with the Congress and its first family, courtesy the leader's open support to Sonia Gandhi when she faced the "foreign origin" charge. Congress-led UPA didn't accommodate him in Manmohan Singh's council of ministers in 2009, but Lalu didn't leave the Congress' side.

Nitish had to find something else. Lalu Yadav and his brand of politics helped Nitish's cause. At one time, Nitish Kumar in his party had infamous men like mafia don Suraj Bhan and others. But post 2015, Nitish walking the secular walk had earned the "Sushasan Babu", or the "good governance" tag.


Strong on corruption, when convenient

So when the media reported Lalu Yadav's telephonic chats with jailed RJD don Syed Shahbuddin, Nitish used his own studied silence and the Bihar Opposition's relentless tirade against Lalu to take the first step away from his ally. What followed next were one, the emergence of the shady land deals case against Lalu's daughter Misa Bharti, and, two, the case against Tejashwi Yadav, the deputy CM. Nitish knew that Lalu would not relent on Tejashwi's ouster from the government.

Lalu Yadav couldn't contest any polls till September 2019. If trapped in a corruption case within a couple of years with the BJP-led Centre chasing him tirelessly, Tejashwi could face jail and may also get barred from contesting polls. That may spell doom for the RJD and JD(U) may get a chance to occupy the political space vacated. Sacrificing power to crusade against corruption offered an opportunity to emphasise Nitish's own "Mr Clean" image.

Lalu's caste solidarity cauldron

Lalu Yadav, of course, could figure out what Nitish's plan was. He was opposing the JD(U) cavalry charge against his son. He ensured the Congress' support. Plus, he extended a helping hand towards BSP chief Mayawati. He offered the ex Uttar Pradesh CM - who doesn't have enough MLAs in UP to return to Rajya Sabha after her term-end next year - a Rajya Sabha seat from Bihar. 

The Yadav-Muslim-Dalit consolidation in Bihar's caste cauldron could be unbeatable. Lalu's gamble was that Nitish married to the BJP would lose the secular tag, making him untouchable for parties opposed to the BJP. So he said a flat no to withdrawing Tejashwi, waiting for Nitish to get heavy-handed and generate sympathy for him and his son.

No 'Manmohan Singh of Bihar'

But Nitish is the most savvy among all rather opportunistic Bihar leaders, including Ram Vilas Paswan of LJP who is in Modi's cabinet and a member of the NDA, despite moving out of the National Democratic Alliance post 2002 Gujarat riots. Life for Nitish Kumar with RJD and Lalu Yadav in the last two years has been difficult. A JD(U) leader says: "Lalu Yadav and his party men never let the government forget which was the bigger party in the alliance.

The government was expected to ignore acts of corruption, lawlessness, and crimes of RJD men. Nitish Kumar was expected to be the Manmohan Singh of the Bihar government - tolerant to the sins of the allies."

Another JD(U) leader based in Delhi says: "The Congress didn't help matters. After UP polls, Nitish was the first to move for a united Opposition candidate for president. He met Sonia Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi was supposed to take the matter forward. But the Gandhi scion went on a holiday leaving Nitish in the lurch. When Nitish, eyeing the Dalit element backed BJP's Ram Nath Kovind, the Congress threw barbs at him. The other key issue is that the Congress decline since the 2015 Bihar win, had made it an unattractive partner."

If in 2013 and 2015, the rise of communal forces and the need for unity among secular entities was Nitish's plank, now it's corruption. The secular-communal divide between JD(U) and the BJP is forgotten.


Modi-Shah avenging 2015

The BJP can smile. It had differences with the JD(U). But it wants Bihar. For PM Narendra Modi, this is a moment of silent celebration. Bihar loss in 2015 was a personal setback for the PM as it lessened the sweetness of his 2014 wins. The poll was lost despite the BJP using him as the campaign face. Pundits had declared that it in the close fight, Nitish had outsmarted Modi, won convincingly against the leading man of 2014.

In May 2016, addressing a party rally in Varanasi, Modi's parliamentary constituency, Nitish called for a "Sangh-mukt Bharat" (RSS-free India) and "Sharab-mukt samaj" (liquor-free society). He made the same pitch at another rally in Musa Nagar in Uttar Pradesh in the first week of August last year. Nitish Kumar's exit from the Mahagathbandhan doesn't just weaken the RJD or the Congress, but the secular formation against Modi. And that brand of anti-communal, anti-Hindutva politics. 

It adds a partner to NDA, the very person who was seen as his past and future challenger. With the BJP, Nitish Kumar's numerical strength in Bihar Assembly is past the halfway mark. Ram Vilas Paswan's LJP and Upendra Kushwaha's RLSP lend valuable support. Will the Muslim MLAs of JD(U) endorse his walk into the NDA camp with BJP men as ministers in the government? These are short-term and minor hiccups, which Nitish Kumar can handle with ease.

But there are bigger questions seeking answers. The BJP under Amit Shah and Narendra Modi is different from the BJP of Atal-Advani era. It wants to be dominant and win all the states. How will Nitish curb the BJP with this new virulently aggressive DNA? It's a fact that CMs and governments not from the NDA fold - like Mamata Banerjee and Virbhadra Singh - are facing political heat due to various reasons. An alliance with the BJP and a favourable central government may help Nitish to secure funds and assistance for Bihar and help his good governance image.

What about 2019?

But if Nitish Kumar has joined hands with the BJP and is trying to invent chemistry with PM Modi, has he buried his prime ministerial ambitions? Is the new tie-up with the BJP an alliance for the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2020 Bihar elections? Or, is it to help Nitish rule only till the next elections? And before the next elections, will Nitish Kumar swing once more, gliding effortlessly from one perch to another? Most importantly, how will Bihar voters perceive his swing - strategy for good governance or sheer, unabashed opportunism?

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Rahul Shrivastava Rahul Shrivastava @rahulshrivstv

The writer is national affairs editor, India Today TV.

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