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Nitish's INDIA Exit: Why the Blame Rests on Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta
Jan 28, 2024
Nitish’s exit will come as a cruel blow for the INDIA bloc. In more ways than one, Nitish was the chief architect of INDIA.

New Delhi: After days of speculation, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar resigned from his position Sunday morning, after his party Janata Dal (United) decided to end its alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal. He then took oath as chief minister for the ninth time and formed a new government with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Over the last two months, rumours that Nitish may join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance again had been rife but the chief minister’s silence over the matter, even as he publicly expressed his anguish over lack of any progress in the INDIA bloc at least twice, left the political pot boiling.

It was only after submitting his resignation to the governor, Rajendra Arlekar, on Sunday morning that Nitish confirmed all rumours, giving little chance to his former allies in INDIA to negotiate, cajole or convince him to stay in the opposition alliance. This lent further credence to the impression that Nitish had already decided to part ways with the opposition.

“I have resigned as CM today and have asked the Governor to put an end to this government. Party leaders were giving me advice. I heard what they said and have resigned. The situation was not good. So, we have broken ties,” Nitish said in his usual taciturn style while announcing his decision, but more importantly added, “We were working on an alliance (INDIA) for the last 1.5 years but things were not working out. Now, we will form a new alliance.”

Like in the past, when he similarly switched camps, he evaded appearing in the public to clarify doubts, remained unreachable to his allies who attempted to contact him multiple times, and focused solely on mapping out the contours of the deal with the saffron party ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Chasing Nitish’s political ambitions

Ever since Nitish secured his first full-term tenure as the chief minister in 2005, he has barely been in an oppositional space. Barring a few months here and there, every decision that the septuagenarian leader took reasserted his own indispensability in Bihar, even when making new alliances. He has survived, and survived beyond anyone’s imagination, while remaining in power or pulling the strings of power ceaselessly.

There is little doubt that Nitish had his own political ambitions in mind every time he switched camps. He remained with the BJP to compete with the primary rival RJD in Bihar for years, but ended this alliance as he could foresee the fate of allies with the seemingly totalitarian Narendra Modi’s ascent at the Centre. Nitish recharged his own position by quitting the NDA and beating the BJP with the help of its arch rival RJD in the 2015 state assembly polls. Having delivered a striking message to Modi about his political significance, he went back to the NDA where he had been the most comfortable in his career.

His relationship with the BJP, however, took the biggest hit when the Modi-Shah duo allegedly engineered substantial losses for the Janata Dal (United) with the help of Lok Janshakti Party’s Chirag Paswan in the 2020 assembly polls. BJP, for the first time in state’s history, ended up with its best tally (74), while Janata Dal finished with one of its worst performances as a NDA constituent with merely 43 seats. Things took a final hit when he lost his closest aide R.C.P. Singh to the BJP. Singh was swiftly made a Union minister, even as the BJP attempted to poach JD(U)’s legislators.

Nitish was at the time the only prominent BJP ally in India as others like Shiv Sena, Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) or Telugu Desam Party had already left the NDA because of the Modi-Shah duo’s alleged disregard for alliance politics. Yet, Nitish survived by quickly joining ranks with the RJD, this time with a national goal to help create a larger opposition front against the Modi-led BJP.

Nitish is now back in the NDA, masterfully securing his position as the most valuable ally of the BJP in Bihar yet again. The saffron party hadn’t missed a window to clamp down on Nitish in the last two years. Its senior leaders hit out at Nitish on almost a daily basis, with even the prime minister lashing out at him quite a few times in his speeches. Nitish’s rule was compared by the BJP to a jungle raaj, as BJP leaders built a campaign around alleged corruption, misgovernance, and failing law and order in Bihar.

How Nitish operated through this mesh of political dynamics is known, but by accepting him again, the Modi-led BJP has shown that it prioritises its electoral ambitions much more than its rhetoric of good governance and political ethics.

A big blow for INDIA

However, Nitish’s exit will come as a cruel blow for the INDIA bloc. In more ways than one, Nitish was the chief architect of INDIA. Over the last two years, he had handed over Bihar’s reins to his deputy Tejashwi Yadav, while touring the country to bring together a range of regional and national parties under a common umbrella. Most of these parties have been historically inimical to the Congress. Bringing them all together to ally with the Congress required negotiations that only a senior leader with political acumen like Nitish could have done.

Meanwhile, he was instrumental in conducting a caste survey in Bihar, which gave a fillip to the opposition parties, including the Congress. The demand for a pan-India caste census re-energised Mandal politics and put the BJP on the backfoot, even if temporarily. At the same time, the Nitish government foregrounded issues like employment and welfare in the last few months by appointing over three lakh youth in state government jobs.

After the initial success of INDIA as a front, that also fended off the possibility of a third front in 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the Bihar chief minister displayed his frustration with its lack of progress. His first dissent came in November 2023 when he showed his anguish over Congress’s lethargic approach towards the opposition front at a time when the grand-old party’s sole focus was on the assembly polls in five states.

The Congress lost all the three Hindi-heartland states, despite showing great confidence in the run-up to the polls. However, if someone needs to take the blame in triggering Nitish’s exit, they will have to be the chief ministers of West Bengal and Delhi, Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal. The two leaders mooted the idea of making Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge INDIA’s prime ministerial candidate in the long-delayed INDIA meeting in New Delhi on December 19, 2023.

The meeting called by the Congress was supposed to happen on December 6, 2023 but leaders like Banerjee and Kejriwal expressed their unavailability, indicating their discomfort with the alliance. Then, when the meeting happened eventually, the two leaders surprisingly floated the idea of Kharge as the prime ministerial candidate without discussing it with any of the other leaders. This was at a time when the Congress was recovering from its losses in assembly elections and had a lot of explaining to do in front of its partners.

Moreover, discussions on prime ministerial candidates appeared to be premature, when basics like seat-sharing, campaign strategy and joint action programmes had not been finalised. The fact that TMC spokespersons went on record after the fourth INDIA meeting on December 19 to suggest that INDIA will finalise seat-sharing by December 31 also looked improbable, forcing Congress’s general secretary (organisation) K.C. Venugopal and RJD chief Lalu Prasad to refute the TMC in their statements.

One may recall how Nitish had braved media questions on a probable prime ministerial candidate for the INDIA bloc when he was meeting leaders to formalise the alliance. Having known the BJP’s preference to reduce the 2024 Lok Sabha polls into a “Modi vs ‘who’” presidential style, Nitish had floated the idea of a “collective leadership” in INDIA and persistently maintained that the alliance will fight the Lok Sabha polls by highlighting the concerns of common people and canvassing against BJP’s alleged authoritarian and centralising impulses.

The mischievous moves by Banerjee and Kejriwal, who have now made their minds clear by announcing that there will be no alliance with the Congress in West Bengal and Punjab, undermined Nitish and other regional leaders of INDIA, and created a political narrative that was vastly different from what INDIA leaders had originally intended.

Given how Nitish had already expressed his view about the supposed “lack of seriousness” in India, Congress’s hasty decision to train its energy on the second round of the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls, even before the alliance’s campaign strategy was chalked out, may have come as a final nail in the coffin.

Nitish has not bothered with monikers like “chameleon” or “kursi (chair) Kumar” or even “paltu ram” thrown at him ever in his political career. He has never owned ideological ethics. He has rather taken pride in his pragmatism and effectiveness. With Nitish’s exit, the formidable opposition alliance in Bihar and its 40 Lok Sabha seats has broken. The INDIA bloc, too, will sorely miss his strategic thinking and political acumen in taking on the dominant BJP. Nitish could have been an asset for the alliance, given his deep political experience in the Hindi heartland.

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