Patna: Who will be the leader of the NDA in Bihar for the 2020 assembly elections? Will it be Nitish Kumar or somebody else? This dilemma continues to haunt the entire leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Janata Dal United (JDU). But top leaders of both the allies are treading cautiously because of the threat that the issue, and the spat over it, might lead to the breakup of the over 20-year old alliance.
The question had arisen soon after the grand victory of the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections at the national level as well as in Bihar where the BJP won 17 seats, the JDU 16 and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) six out of 40 Lok Sabha seats.
Buoyed by the poll outcome, a major section of the Bihar BJP leadership and those handling Bihar affairs at the national level hold the view that a strong wave in favour of Narendra Modi this time had led to the splendid victory of the NDA.
Though the BJP leaders do not discount the vote base of the JDU and the LJP in Bihar, they still believe that the allies too have been benefited substantially due to the Narendra Modi wave that blew across the country. To substantiate their contention, they argued that the allies could not have won all the seats they contested had there been no Modi magic. It was only JDU which lost the minority-dominated Kishanganj Lok Sabha seat.
Guided by this opinion, a major section of the state BJP threw down the gauntlet on the leadership issue asserting that the party should also have its own face for the post of the chief minister and the JDU leader Nitish Kumar should be elevated to the national politics like Ram Vilas Paswan. The Nitish-baiters in the BJP were skeptical in view of developments like refusal of the JDU leadership to join the Union council of ministers and a missive from the state police seeking details of RSS functionaries operating in Bihar.
Alarmed by BJP’s internal campaign, Nitish Kumar used his close friend and Bihar deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi to make an impromptu statement on the floor of the state assembly asserting that the Bihar assembly polls due next year would be fought under the leadership of Nitish Kumar.
Sushil Modi’s assertion less than two months after government formation at the Centre was aimed at dismissing opposition’s skepticism about NDA remaining intact and internal bickering in the state BJP over the leadership issue.
The question gained wider currency early this month after the JDU tried to project Nitish Kumar as the sole leader of the NDA by putting up hoardings with slogans saying, “Kyun karein vichar, jab hain hi Nitish Kumar (Why should we think about leadership when Nitish Kumar is already there).”
In a prompt riposte, former Union minister and party MLC Sanjay Paswan contended that Nitish Kumar should step down as Chief Minister and make way for the BJP. “The BJP entrusted Nitish with the Chief Minister’s post for 15 long years and now he should reciprocate the gesture,” Paswan said.
Many BJP leaders like former Union minister Dr C P Thakur and Mrityunjay Tiwari buttressed Paswan’s views on BJP in the leadership role this time. However, Sushil Modi once again stated that Nitish Kumar is the captain of the NDA in Bihar and will remain its captain in the next assembly elections in 2020 also. “When the captain is hitting fours and sixes and defeating rivals by inning, where is the question of change,” Modi said.
Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan also batted for Nitish Kumar on the leadership issue and dismissed the murmurs over it as just views expressed by some individuals. He, however, dodged queries as to whether he was unequivocally in support of Nitish, saying that there is no change in the leadership till the BJP comes with another name.
Paswan is an important leader of the NDA and his party had garnered little less than 7 per cent votes in 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls. He is considered one of the leading Dalit faces in Bihar, where nearly 12 per cent Dalit votes are numerically as significant as the 14 per cent Yadavas. Despite his long political career spanning five decades, he had never held the post of the chief minister so far.
The NDA had witnessed similar crisis in February 2005 when Nitish Kumar was not declared the chief ministerial candidate. The JDU and BJP won 55 and 37 assembly seats respectively but the NDA was still short of 30 MLAs to form the government. Eventually, President Rule was imposed due to the fractured mandate. It was acknowledged that the NDA could not win the required number of seats to reach the magic number of 122 MLAs in the Bihar assembly because it had not declared its chief ministerial candidate.
During this period, party’s national general secretary and Bihar in-charge late Arun Jaitley was instrumental in declaring Nitish Kumar as the chief ministerial candidate for the November 2005 assembly elections despite vehement opposition by a section of JDU leaders.
JDU president George Fernandes was so upset by the move that he declared Nitish Kumar as the choice of the BJP, not the JDU. Some JDU leaders like late Digvijay Singh and BJP leaders like Kailashpati Mishra were of the view that Nitish would not been acceptable to all sections of the society. But Jaitley along with late Pramod Mahajan convinced Fernandes to accept Nitish as leader of the NDA in Bihar.
As the game of one-upmanship continues, the BJP is guided by the presumption that it is now or never situation for it in Bihar. The BJP has never ruled Bihar independently and had always played second fiddle in governance.
In 1989, it supported the then Lalu Prasad Yadav government in Bihar and the VP Singh government at the Centre. The BJP withdrew the support after LK Advani was arrested by the then Lalu Prasad Yadav government at Samastipur during his Rath Yatra.
Thereafter, the BJP had suffered a split in 1991 when a section of the Bihar BJP leaders led by Inder Singh Namdhari and Samresh Singh had formed a separate group called the Sampoorn Kranti Dal and supported the Lalu Prasad Yadav government. After the JDU deserted the NDA in 2013, attempts were made to split the 91-member BJP legislature party.
Significantly, their two decades-old ties notwithstanding, ideology has remained a major bone of contention between the JDU and BJP. They have been at loggerheads on many issues like Triple Talaq Bill and the Article 370 amendment bill. The JDU had opposed both the bills in Parliament though the BJP has been highlighting both the issues as major achievements of the Narendra Modi 2.0 government. Recently, the JDU has opposed BJP’s move to maintain National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Bihar.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal.)