“Modi tujhse bair nahin, Nitish teri khair nahin (Won’t spare Nitish Kumar, but there is no enmity with Modi”).
With this slogan, Chirag Paswan, 37, and his party, the LJP, have come good on their threat of stepping out of a Bihar alliance that includes Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. The LJP will run candidates against those of Nitish Kumar’s party, the JDU, but will not contest the seats that are assigned to the BJP. And, at the centre, the parties of both Chirag Pawan and Nitish Kumar remain members of the national coalition led by the BJP.
If this is confusing enough, wait – like all good Bihari political play, this too comes with an old-fashioned twist.
Chirag Paswan’s father, Ram Vilas Paswan, is union minister for Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution. He has been in hospital. Chirag, who tried to catch a break in Bollywood a few years ago, is being mentored by Amit Shah, the union Home Minister. Two days before Chirag made his announcement of “no to Nitish, yes to BJP”, he held a long meeting with Shah in Delhi.
Designed craftily by Shah, the strategy is for Chirag to act as a “vote katua” (vote-cutter) for Nitish Kumar. And help the BJP as a result. After the results are out, this leaves the possibility wide open of the BJP gaining much more bargaining power in negotiations with Nitish Kumar. If the BJP does well enough, it could find itself in a position to get rid of Nitish Kumar altogether and form the government with Paswan’s support.
To that end, Chirag could stage with “friendly fights” in many seats, putting up candidates who aren’t really contenders. They eat into the votes that would accrue to a Nitish Kumar and the BJP candidate gets elected as a result.
The Paswans are the biggest Dalit community in the state, forming 4.5 percentof the overall population. Chirag has ambitions of expanding the party’s reach. He believes that there is enough of an anti-incumbency wave against Nitish Kumar to swoop in and gain ground. Plus this election is seeing the other side – the opposition alliance of Lalu Yadav, Congress and the Left – being led by Lalu’s son – 30-year-old Tejashwi Yadav. If Chirag wants to be taken seriously, it’s time to step up his profile and leadership. To be taken seriously, he wants to contest the same number of seats as Nitish Kumar – about 140. In the last state election, his party contestedjust 40. It’s an attempt at graduating from the minor league to the big one.
For the BJP, the moving parts make perfect sense. The Prime Minister has said his party will contest the election with no doubt about Nitish Kumar as its Chief Ministerial candidate. But over the years, the PM’s popularity has established that seats in Bihar are won easily in his name, and from being the junior partner in the alliance with Nitish Kumar, Shah now wants to move into Big Brother status. It is the same model that he has followed in other alliances and one that usually pays off handsomely in increasing the BJP’s power.
Bihar has 243 seats. The BJP and Nitish Kumar are likely to contest 119 each. Nitish has to give about five seats to a smaller ally, Jitan Ram Manjhi, this means he could contest fewer seats than the BJP. Unthinkable just a few years ago.
Voting begins on October 28; counting is on November 10.
Chirag Paswan has often told me that Nitish Kumar is not an efficient administrator. The incontrovertible bungling of the corona crisis in Bihar as well as the highly emotive issue of migrants, who left cities like Bombay and Delhi to return to villages in Bihar when the lockdown was declared, have shown up as Nitish as out of touch with ground realities. As Chirag built his campaign against Nitish, he was fully backed by his experienced father.
To forge his way out of a team that included Nitish Kumar as the ostensible star, Chirag deliberately asked for so many seats that his partners had to decline. Out he headed then, revealing the Shah script – allies in Delhi, opponents in Bihar.
The attempt to cut Kumar to size has added an exciting twist to the Bihar elections and also proves that no Bihar election can ever be boring. A few weeks ago, the outcome seemed guaranteed – an easy win for Nitish and the BJP. Now, it’s much more complicated.
I spoke to several leaders from Bihar for this column. All of them point to one paradox: the backlash against Nitish for his poor governance in the last year in particular has in no way tarnished the Prime Minister by association. If there is a price to pay, it will be Nitish and not the combine that takes the hit.
Nitish Kumar is a veteran of political somersaults having changed partners for this stint in the government (he swapped the Congress and Lalu Yadav for the BJP with whom he broke up earlier) but he may find himself out-manoeuvred this time around. His opportunistic change of partners image has finally caught up with him, said a central BJP leader in charge of the Bihar election. “Every Bihari knows he is Kursi Kumar (power-hungry). Jahan Kursi Vahan Nitish.”
These days Kumar is mum on his much displayed conscience which he claimed guided his politics.
The BJP cannibalising allies for its growth is not a new story. The same thing happened to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and the Akali Dal in Punjab. Both split with the BJP, not willing to concede their regional hold.
Nitish Kumar has in the past attributed his partner-swapping to his conscience. It is political intuition that he must summon now.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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