As the Janata Dal(United)-BJP alliance in Bihar reaches the edge of a cliff, the question being asked in Patna is not "why?" but "why now?".
The downward spiral in the relationship was not unexpected given the rapidly shrinking space for BJP to pursue any ideological agenda and the ambitions with which Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has tried to carve a constituency of his own.
But the Bihar BJP leadership chose to submit to the party’s progressive diminution within the ruling coalition to remain in office.
The shrinking of the BJP is reflected in its share in the Nitish Kumar ministry. From the originally agreed ratio of 6 JD(U) to 4 BJP ministers, the junior partner’s share has declined to about 35 per cent.
JD(U) appointees head at least seven commissions. The BJP’s head none.
“For much of the over four years for which he has led Bihar, Nitish Kumar has pursued an agenda geared to carving out a constituency of his own to the exclusion of anything remotely BJP (centric),” said political analyst and former Nitish associate P.K. Sinha. “But the party preferred to bask in Nitish’s reflected glory, happy with the crumbs of power that came its way.”
BJP national executive member RK Sinha added, “There is view that the party should not have conceded so much space to the JD(U).”
Nitish has attempted to build a constituency that could override his ally’s contribution to the NDA’s victories in the 2005 Assembly poll and the 2009 Lok Sabha election in Bihar.
For this, he has wooed the extremely backward castes (EBCs) and Mahadalits (the most deprived among the SCs), besides, of course, the Muslims.
“Together, these three categories comprise over 50 per cent of Bihar’s population,” said Shaibal Gupta, a leading social scientist. “This combination holds out the promise of placing Nitish Kumar in an insurmountable electoral position.”
Leaders claiming to have an insight into Nitish’s mind insist he is counting on this new social combination to eschew saffron and decimate the Opposition: in other words, do a Naveen Patnaik in Bihar.
The BJP had indicated before the on-going controversy over Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s flood aid to Bihar that it would contest the coming Assembly elections under Nitish’s
“By submitting to Nitish, the BJP has ended up destroying parity in their relationship,” said P.K. Sinha.
But others believe that jettisoning the BJP at this point of time could be risky for Nitish. For one, the land-owning upper castes — who played an important role in his victories in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections — are now suspicious that he might bring in a law to give tenancy rights to share-croppers who till their land.
The NDA suffered reverses in Assembly by-elections after its Lok Sabha success in the state last year. Withdrawal of upper caste support was widely blamed for the setback.
Then, there is the question of whether the EBC-Mahadalit-Muslim combine will actually deliver for Nitish.
“Although there has been much talk about what Nitish is supposed to have done for these sections, very little of that is seen on the ground,” said JD(U) MLC Shambhu Srivasatav, who has fallen out with the chief minister.
If the Nitish-BJP divorce papers are signed, there can be no knowing in what direction the political winds in the state will blow.
Bihar BJP president C.P. Thakur told HT on Sunday that talks were on to resuscitate the alliance. Even if that happens, don’t bet on its longevity.