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Why Nitish looks like a mirror image of Mehbooba in NDA

From being a Bodhi tree who was willing to reject power that came with a taint, the Bihar Chief Minister has become a bonsai in the BJP pot

analysis Updated: Aug 17, 2017 10:33 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times
Mehbooba Mufti,Nitish Kumar,BJP
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar at the swearing-in ceremony of Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu in New Delhi on August 11. Even the most inveterate of Nitish’s admirers found hard to reconcile to the indecent haste with which he resigned and reassumed office(PTI)

The stage for apportioning blame is over. It’s time now to assess what future holds in store for the dramatis personae in Bihar? On the face of it, the BJP is the undisputed winner — the way it was in Jammu and Kashmir.

Regardless of his de jure status as chief minister, Nitish Kumar is the de facto junior partner of the increasingly pan-Indian BJP. He’s a kind of mirror image of Mehbooba Mufti whose PDP’s tie-up with the saffron outfit was as much in disregard of the popular mandate as is her Bihar counterpart’s volte face. They’re both sleeping with the party they painted as villainous.

But there’s a difference. Unlike Mufti whose image is down from zenith to nadir in her citadel of south Kashmir, Nitish hasn’t entirely lost his core base. The least empowered scheduled castes (mahadalits) and the extremely backward among the OBCs (aati pichadas) are broadly with him. So are his clansmen, the historically BJP-inclined Kurmis.

The danger for him isn’t as much from friend-turned-detractor Lalu Yadav. The RJD leader’s Muslim-Yadav constituency is at once his asset and liability. The extremely weaker sections Nitish roped in through assiduous social engineering, besides women voters, are more likely to be poached away by the mighty BJP.

It was that very social mobilisation — besides the forward castes — that carried the day for Narendra Modi in Uttar Pradesh. Veteran observers of Bihar politics foresee in this backdrop a dim future for the BJP’s newest ally. With the passage of time, Nitish’s relevance in the NDA would only be marginally more significant than Anupriya Patel’s. The junior central minister’s Kurmi-centric Apna Dal had mopped up assembly seats in certain districts of eastern UP adjoining Bihar.

There’s speculation already that the BJP might take Bihar (where elections are due in 2020) to polls with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. If that happens, Nitish’s fait accompli will be a truncated tenure with no guarantee of continuing as CM.

One reason for which he dumped Lalu — besides corruption and his overbearing swagger — was the RJD chief’s anxiety to see his son Tejasvi elevated as CM. In that limited sense, the JD (U)’s alliance with the saffron parivar is no safe bet. They too want someone from the Hindutva stock in the top slot.

But that’s politics without constants; a game where rivals and companions aren’t permanent. Nor are vote banks! Even the most inveterate of Nitish’s admirers found hard to reconcile to the indecent haste with which he resigned and reassumed office. At one moment he stood like a Bodhi tree willing to reject power that came with taint; at another he seemed a bonsai in the BJP pot he had outgrown so promisingly.

The dramatic swerve brought him down in the esteem of peers and public alike. Erased in one stroke was the renown of being an alternative to Modi.

For the BJP, a bird in hand was worth the proverbial two in the bush. What more could it have asked than the PM’s conceivable challenger recanting on the very principles he cited in 2013 to declare him a political untouchable?

But could the grand alliance that derailed the Modi juggernaut have been salvaged? The blame for it goes to both sides: Lalu erring before the breakup and Nitish after resigning.

The rebellious Sharad Yadav had advised the CM to desist joining the BJP the way he had counselled him against deserting the NDA before the 2014 elections. But he ignored such advice, knowing fully well that the BJP of today wasn’t the party of the AB Vajpayee era.

Unlike the NDA-I that was dependent on regional crutches, an ally of Nitish’s size cannot be a restraining influence on the BJP-led formation’s second edition. It has overwhelming numbers today in parliament and governments in 18 state capitals.

So the core agenda of Ram mandir, Common Civil Code and abrogation of Article 370 that was deferred in its earlier incarnation is very much on the front burner. The tail will wag the dog no more.

The BJP’s majoritarian pitch predicated on these issues might telescope over time Nitish’s silos of caste support. The extremely weaker sections among Dalits and Backwards could gravitate towards the BJP, what with the appeal of Ramvilas Paswan and Jitan Manjhi who’s no friend of the CM.

In the long run, the residual opposition to the Modi bandwagon would be the Muslim-Yadav compact. It’ll find new leadership or reconcile to remote control or old-guard such as Sharad if Lalu’s entire family is jailed.

In short, the losses of the inherently atomic JD siblings’ could be mutual and equal. Unless of course a major crisis comes to bedevil the BJP.

vinodsharma@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Aug 16, 2017 15:39 IST