Express Sunday Story: The Bihar Handshake

There’s something about Nitish Kumar and the number 7. As Chief Minister, he has been staying at 7, Circular Road, while using 1, Anne Marg, the official CM residence, as his office. Now, with Nitish severing his five-year-old alliance with the BJP and walking over to the Mahagathbandhan camp, many point out that a famous Delhi address — 7, Lok Kalyan Marg, the official residence of the Prime Minister — could be on his mind. After all, as he left the NDA, Nitish sent out a political dare, couched as prophesy, to the current occupant of 7, Lok Kalyan: “Jo 2014 me aaye the, 2024 me aayenge kya (the one who came to power in 2014, would he also return in 2014)?”

Though there has been much talk about Nitish’s growing discomfort with an “overbearing” BJP, the stark message to have emerged out of Nitish’s latest U-turn is his rekindled national ambition. Though he hasn’t spoken openly about his PM hopes and continues to talk about “serving” Bihar, soon after taking oath as Chief Minister for a record eighth time, Nitish had urged all Opposition parties to start preparing for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. JD(U) sources hint he may soon start touring other states to explore the chances of a broader national coalition to take on the BJP in the 2024 elections.

JD(U) national spokesperson K C Tyagi told The Sunday Express, “We have been getting a very positive response (about Nitish Kumar walking out of the NDA). Just the thought of Nitish playing an important role in national politics looks exciting. It is too early to say, but Nitish Kumar has recharged the Opposition.”

Saying the Mahagathbandhan, an alliance of seven parties that has the JD(U), RJD and Congress, besides other smaller parties, could “offer a template for a national opposition against the BJP”, another top JD(U) leader said, “Bihar has been the factory of political experiments and coalitions. The BJP is now up against a tough Opposition in Bihar. Who knows, there might be a strong Opposition at the national level too?”

JD(U) sources point out that Nitish has little left to prove in state politics. He is credited with turning around Bihar’s fortunes after its long years of decay and for building a formidable social coalition built around women and the extremely backward classes among OBCs. He is also the state’s longest-serving CM, having broken the record of 16 years held by Dr Srikrishna Singh, Bihar’s first CM and earlier its state premier. As a close Nitish aide says, “Arre, ab to deputy PM aur PM hi bacha hai na (now only the posts of deputy PM and PM are left to be achieved).”

But those sceptical of a larger national role for Nitish or the possibility of him being the Opposition’s joint face against Modi point to his “paltu ram” image, the consummate politician who has swung between camps with the ease of a trapeze artiste.

Nitish, who joined hands with the BJP in 1995, first quit the NDA in 2013, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, when it became clear that Narendra Modi would be the prime ministerial candidate. Though he didn’t openly pitch himself for the post, he was evidently uneasy about Modi’s growing profile. When he finally parted ways with the BJP in 2013, it was on the ground that the NDA should have a leader with a “clean and secular image”.

Then, in the run-up to the 2015 polls, Nitish did the unthinkable by joining hands with his old socialist fellow-traveller and later foe, Lalu Prasad’s RJD. In the elections that year, held two years after Nitish quit the NDA, the coalition got 178 seats, with the BJP reduced to 53 seats. Nitish had found his sweet revenge against Modi.

Barely two years later, in 2017, he snapped ties with the RJD citing his no-corruption plank as the CBI booked RJD leader and now his Deputy CM, Tejashwi Yadav, in the IRCTC case.

Now, five years since he left the Mahagathbandhan camp, Nitish is back, rallying the Opposition to prepare for the 2024 polls and ruing his time in the BJP. Another somersault, yet Nitish had managed a clean landing — displaying no unease about the contradictions inherent in his moves. The Nitish of 2022 had clearly travelled a fair distance from the Nitish of 2017.

For someone who would often talk of the “triple Cs” of crime, corruption and communalism” as the guiding principles of his governance model, Nitish, when asked if ‘corruption’ was no longer an issue, didn’t bat an eyelid when he said, Tejashwi by his side, “Very much so. We cannot compromise on corruption.”

JD(U) national president Rajiv Ranjan Singh a.k.a. Lalan Singh too defended the party’s decision to return to the RJD despite its strident stand on corruption, saying, “It has been five years since the IRCTC case. There is hardly any movement in it. It is nothing but an act of political vendetta.”

Nitish’s last stint in the Mahagathbandhan camp was anything but smooth. Only a few months into the arrangement, the stress had started showing, with the JD(U) accusing the RJD of interference. Nitish was no longer the last word in matters of governance, as he had been in the NDA. While the BJP had no strong state leader to match Nitish’s charisma, here in the Mahagathbandhan, he had to share space and spotlight with Lalu and family. The RJD leader’s constant reference to Nitish as “chhote bhai (younger brother)” is also believed to have rankled Nitish.

All that, JD(U) sources insist, is behind them now. Nitish and Tejashwi have reportedly worked out a working arrangement. Tejashwi has already been granted Z-plus security, a perk Nitish’s deputies in the BJP — Sushil Kumar Modi, Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi — never enjoyed.

Sushil Modi recently said, “I was deputy CM for over 12 years, yet the government didn’t feel the need to give me a bullet-proof vehicle or Z-plus security.”

Nitish, who by all accounts felt “suffocated” in the BJP, believes he is now his own man — that his 71 years and record-breaking stint as CM have equipped him to tackle a young and ambitious Tejashwi and handle the pulls and pressures of the RJD.

Nitish would also want to ensure that the RJD and its overtly Yadav image don’t put off his own core vote base — women and EBCs. Sources say that this time around, the RJD is on the same page as the JD(U) as it seeks to expand beyond its Muslim-Yadav vote base, a shift that is likely to reflect in Tejashwi’s choice of ministers too.

Nitish’s growing discomfort with the BJP had also sprung from his party’s shrinking footprint. In the 2020 elections to the 243-member Assembly, which the JD(U) contested as part of the NDA, the party had shrunk to 43 seats from its previous tally of 71 while the BJP’s had increased from 53 to 74. The RJD had ended up as the single largest party that year, winning 75 seats while the Congress won 19 and Left parties 16. Nitish, sources say, now believes his party has a better chance outside the NDA.

JD(U) leaders point to J P Nadda’s statement, made at the BJP’s recent national executive in Hyderabad, where he questioned the future of regional and dynastic parties, to say that Nitish’s fear isn’t misplaced: that any prolonged association with the BJP could end up diminishing the JD(U)’s influence in the state.

JD(U) president Lalan Singh told The Indian Express: “How can J P Nadda say regional parties will be finished? The BJP tries to gobble up its allies. We called their bluff.”

His critics in the BJP, however, say Nitish needed the BJP as much as it needed him. “We have seen leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Navin Patnaik who can win polls on their own. But here is Nitish Kumar who needs others to win. We dare him to contest alone if he thinks he is so experienced. What he did is politically immoral,” said former Union minister and BJP Patna Saheb MP Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Morality aside, even the staunchest of Nitish’s critics would agree that he is playing the long game.

One lasting image of the Grand Alliance 2.0 is the Nitish-Tejashwi hug. It is a half-embrace, like Nitish is wont to — he seldom does a full embrace.

Tejashwi 2.0

NOT LONG ago, in his sharpest attack on Tejashwi Yadav till date, Nitish Kumar mentioned his long association with Tejashwi’s father Lalu Prasad, adding: “I often keep quiet because he is the son of my brother-like friend.”

The remark in the Assembly by Nitish followed then Leader of Opposition Tejashwi’s charge against him of “plagiarism and payment of a fine of Rs 25,000”.

As the saying goes, there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, only permanent interests. And then there is Bihar. A state where one JP Movement would spark enough leaders — including Nitish and Lalu — to upturn its own and national politics, and where politics has revolved around the same faces for decades since. The former comrades are sometimes friends, sometimes enemies, but always around.

With Tejashwi’s return to his ‘Chacha’ Nitish as Deputy CM, that is set to continue.

But if Nitish’s somersaults have come to surprise few, it is the new Tejashwi who made this latest turnaround possible.

Observers say this is the prime reason Mahagath-bandhan 2022 is unlike Mahagathbandhan 2015, and more likely to survive. In 2015, Tejashwi was 27 and a rookie MLA, whose promotion to Deputy CM was seen as a nod to father Lalu. It was also against the backdrop of a family tussle for power, which had not been settled till then.

Now he comes to the alliance as a leader in his own right, having led the RJD to single-largest party in the 2020 Assembly elections, shouldering the burden of the campaign as illness and prison sidelined Lalu. Brother Tej Pratap Yadav is now firmly in Tejashwi’s shadow, waiting hopefully for at least a ministerial portfolio.

Showing willingness to take charge, Tejashwi did not even put Lalu’s photos prominently in the 2020 campaign material, and went beyond his father’s tested slogans of “social justice” and “secularism”. His main promises were “10 lakh jobs” and “economic justice”.

When the RJD ended short of managing to form a government, Tejashwi adopted his role as Leader of Opposition with all seriousness, sharp and impressive in his attacks, interspersed with facts and figures.

The RJD under him has a devoted ‘research team’ besides a political advisor in friend Sanjay Yadav. Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Kumar Jha (an academic), RJD national spokesperson Subodh Mehta and state RJD chief Jagdanand Singh are part of his core team.

The RJD has also been trying assiduously to change its image from a MY (Muslims, Yadavs) party to one open ‘A to Z’. Tejashwi’s wedding to a school friend, a Goan Christian, has helped sharpen that image. The RJD leader has talked about the wedding having the full blessing of Lalu.

At the same time, Tejashwi has ensured Lalu remains very much in the picture, taking his inputs on key decisions. The decision to put aside what happened with Nitish last time, when he swung to the BJP and caused the Mahagathbandhan government to collapse, and re-align with him, was also taken after due consultation with Lalu.

Once Tejashwi would have resisted to this, party leaders say. This time, he did not need much persuasion to make the more pragmatic and sagacious move.

The RJD leader, now 32, is also said to be clear in his mind about the role he sees for himself in his second innings in power. Including conceding to Nitish’s seniority for now, despite the RJD having nearly double the seats as the JD(U) in the Assembly.

Speaking to The Sunday Express on his priorities, Tejashwi said: “It would be a combination of jobs, strengthening of the social sector, such as in health and education, and a focus on youths.” Providing 10 lakh jobs was “the top agenda and first priority”, he added. “Soon there will be bumper recruitment in Bihar. After that, we will move to incentivising job creation in the private sector, especially in the small and medium sector. I am glad the discussion on demand for jobs and employment is taking place,” the new Bihar Deputy CM said.

On the BJP questioning him over the job promise, Tejashwi said: “It is healthy for a democracy that people remember poll promises. They will now question the BJP on its endless list of promises… The BJP promised 19 lakh jobs, wasted almost two years of Bihar and did not create a single job,” he said, speaking over the phone from Delhi, where he met senior leaders of RJD allies the first time after the tie-up with the JD(U) was struck, including with Sonia Gandhi.

Asked specifically how Mahagathbandhan 2.0 was different, Tejashwi said: “The RJD has always been accommodative in the interest of the state. Two, we have been accommodative in the interest of the country, state, people, Constitution, democracy and a united Opposition. The difference would be that we will work to show results in key areas in the first year itself.”

Whether Cabinet expansion would reflect this accommodation, a detail being watched closely, Tejashwi said: “Our party is diverse and so are our representatives. This diversity would definitely be reflected.”

However, the apprehension in many quarters of a return of Yadav domination goes beyond Cabinet, to fears that the RJD in power means return of jungle raj. Tejashwi didn’t sound apologetic on the matter. “It is like crying wolf all the time. The claim is baseless and meaningless. Unfortunately, it is something that is perpetuated unquestioningly by friends in the media also. How is it that until days ago all was fine and within 24 hours the bogey of jungle raj is back? Their baseless allegations in the last 30 years have done greater harm to Bihar and Biharis,” he said.

In what might make Mahagathbandhan 2022 a smoother ride, there are signs that the RJD and JD(U) have reached an agreement for Nitish to move on to the national stage sooner rather than later, leaving Bihar to his Deputy CM.

Tejashwi did not admit this, but did not hedge either. Asked if he saw Nitish becoming a fulcrum of anti-Modi politics in 2024, he said: “Opposition unity needs to be worked out on a priority basis and we will take part in discussions to present an alternative that people are desperately looking for.”

A senior RJD leader admitted to “long-term” goals, noting that Tejashwi has the advantage of age with him. “In 2015, it was a matter of an erratic and unplanned frog jump. The JD(U) and RJD came together with the short-sighted goal of retaining power and keeping the BJP out. But Mahagathbandhan 2.0 is equivalent to a lion’s jump. A lion takes a step back before a jump. Ours is a long-term goal, thinking of both national and state politics,” the leader said.

That said, the real challenge to the alliance will come soon, on the matter of transfers. This had been a problem in 2015 too. This time, the RJD is mindful of not asserting in a manner that would make Nitish “uncomfortable”.

As for signs that a shuffle of the cards was imminent in Bihar, before Nitish and Tejashwi revealed their hand, there were plenty. But with few leaders of Lalu and Nitish vintage or stature in Patna, the BJP perhaps was ill-equipped to spot them.

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The first issue on which Nitish reached out to Tejashwi was the caste census, with both leading a joint delegation on the matter to the Centre. Then came an iftar party earlier this year, when Nitish dropped in at Lalu family residence for the first time in five years. At the iftar party he himself hosted, the CM pointedly walked out till the gate to see Tejashwi off, a moment captured by an excited media. In July, Nitish visited Lalu at AIIMS, after he was airlifted there for treatment.

The first thing Tejashwi did after taking oath as Deputy CM was to ask his enthusiastic supporters not to engage in overt celebrations but to get back to work. But the joy was difficult to contain, especially at Lalu’s 10, Circular Road Residence, where the shadow of recent cases, arrest of a close Lalu aide, and raids seemed to lift.

An RJD supporter quipped: “Let the ED and CBI open small offices at Laluji’s residence, rather than bothering the family.”

Tejashwi will move soon though, to the Deputy CM’s residence at 5, Deshratna Marg. It is an address just 250 metres down from CM House.

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