On Wednesday, an implosion ripped apart the ruling grand alliance in Bihar, whose significance to the national political scenario cannot be underestimated. The Janata Dal (United) led by Nitish Kumar broke away from the grand alliance to partner with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form a new government. No matter what Nitish’s critics might say, it was Lalu Prasad, the supreme leader of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) who left him with no other choice. Nitish has built up his political reputation on his personal integrity and his firm decisions to throw any of his ministers out if serious criminal charges were levelled against him. When charges of corruption surfaced against Tejaswi Yadav, his deputy chief minister, he wanted him to quit, but Lalu Prasad, Tejaswi’s father, remained stubborn, saying the charges were concocted and politically motivated and aimed at his family because of his campaign against Narendra Modi and BJP’s “communal” politics.
Nitish was not impressed by the rhetoric. He gave Lalu a few days to decide, but he refused to ask Tejaswi to quit. The whole affair threatened to damage Nitish’s reputation as a chief minister who was committed to corruption-free governance. Had he continued with the alliance he could have definitely continued to be in the chief minister’s office until the next elections to the state Assembly in 2020 – the majority the grand alliance enjoyed was overwhelming – but his image in public would have sunk. He would have been known as an opportunist and hypocrite. Above all, he would not have been able to run the government with absolute control. For, if he gave in to Lalu’s stubbornness, Lalu would not have stopped there. He would have done much more brazen things, realizing that Nitish would never break away from the alliance.
The choice before Nitish was: should he allow Lalu to dictate terms to him and remain in the alliance or should he go back to the BJP and accept the national leadership of Narendra Modi, with whom he had had major disagreement since he emerged as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate? Re-establishing alliance with the BJP must have been a very hard decision for Nitish. He had been seen as the only leader in the opposition who could throw a credible challenge to Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019. This perception was there in the media as well as the public. Joining the BJP would mean that Nitish was out of the race for prime ministership. In partnering with the BJP again, Nitish has made that sacrifice.
Nitish must have made that hard decision also because, while the media and the public saw him as a credible likely challenger to Narendra Modi in 2019, the opposition parties made no statements or gave no indications of accepting him as one. He waited for the Congress, the biggest party in the opposition, to work for bringing together opposition parties for projecting a credible alternative to Narendra Modi, but the party leaders did not make any moves. Modi is already certain to be the NDA prime minister candidate again. If a challenger had to be projected, the selection and campaign should have begun by now, the middle of 2017. The Congress has not even declared Rahul Gandhi as the prime minister candidate of the united opposition. There is total vagueness and uncertainty about who would be the opposition candidate to fight Modi in 2019. There were chief ministers such as Mamata Banerjee who were said to have ambitions to be the opposition PM nominee. Nitish did not receive any support or hint from the Congress that he could be accepted as the united opposition candidate. Nor did the other chief ministers leading opposition parties give any support to him. As the scenario for him to be accepted as a united opposition challenger to Modi looked bleak, Nitish decided to concentrate on Bihar.
The question is: Had the corruption charges against Tejaswi Yadav not surfaced, would Nitish still have broken away from the alliance? Perhaps not. For, he had gone on with the alliance for 20 months and would have gone on till the next election. In spite of the fact that Lalu Prasad gets sometimes too power-drunk to interfere in the state administration despite holding no legislative office, Nitish knew how to keep the administration under his control and not let him get away with irregularities and favouritism. As Nitish realized the opposition would not back him as a prime minister candidate, he would have continued to work for implementing his poll promises, expecting the voters to reward him for his integrity and good work once again. However, Lalu’s obstinacy forced him to get his whole party, including his son, out of the government.