As Nitish Kumar was sworn in as Bihar’s chief minister for the fourth time Monday evening, his body language was watched by observers for any clues. But his usual impassive presence and familiar stoic face did not reveal much. By all indications, his new term is set to be the most challenging for the 69-year-old Lohiate, especially when it comes to managing his Janta Dal United’s coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Having won an impressive 74 seats in the recent Assembly election, 31 more than the JDU, the BJP is expected to be much more assertive in the National Democratic Alliance government. And Nitish, treading the delicate turf of realpolitik and alliance arithmetic, would try not to lose sight of achieving the next series of developmental goals for Bihar.
The composition of Nitish’s new 14-member council of ministers has two dimensions. First, it reflects the nature of the pre-poll arrangement and the post-poll mandate. While Nitish’s return as the chief minister honours the alliance’s pre-poll projection of him as its chief ministerial face, the BJP’s share in the ministerial berths mirrors the party’s electoral performance. Having emerged as the largest NDA partner in the new Assembly, the BJP has seven ministers, including Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi as deputy chief ministers. The JDU, which won 43 seats, has received five ministerial berths, and the small but crucial allies, Hindustani Awam Morcha and the Vikassheel Insaan Party, have got one each. Both HAM and VIP won four seats in the election.
The BJP is also expected to get the post of the Assembly’s speaker, with former minister Nand Kishore Yadav the top contender for the position.
Second, the BJP and the JDU have taken care to represent various social constituents in the choice of ministers or tried to build a base for future social coalitions. Two ministers from each party belong to the Other Backward Classes and three to the Extremely Backward Classes, an OBC subgroup identified for special welfare benefits by the Nitish government, including deputy chief minister Renu Devi of the BJP and Mukesh Sahni of VIP. The Dalits are represented by three ministers, including Santosh Kumar Suman Manjhi of HAM, whereas the upper castes have four ministers – two Bhumihar, a Brahmin, and a Rajput.
The representation of the state’s nine broad geographical-cultural regions has been shaped by the nature of the mandate. The alliance’s strong performance in Mithilanchal has meant the region has five members in the new ministry, whereas Magadh, Kosi, Tirhut, Seemanchal, Champaran, Shahabad, Saran, and Munger have one minister each. The BJP’s choice of Tarkishore Prasad for deputy chief minister could have been guided by the need to set the tone for the Bengal Assembly election next year; he is from Seemanchal, which shares a boundary with Bengal. The choice of Renu Devi, on the other hand, could serve the triple objective of representing the NDA’s social constituency among women and the EBCs as well as giving the Champaran region a share in power.
If the allocation of the ministerial berths is any indication, the JDU and the BJP may be eyeing some social segments jointly. While this strategy might be complementary when the alliance is working well, it could turn competitive when fissures surface in the coalition. The BJP’s attempt to win the EBC support, for instance, could be construed as the party prowling the JDU’s turf.
Meanwhile, by dropping Sushil Kumar Modi as the deputy chief minister, the BJP is seen to have fulfilled the demand of its rank and file. There was a perception among the BJP’s workers that Modi’s rapport with Nitish, traced back to their close association during their Patna University days, meant that the party’s interests and growth hadn’t received priority. The veteran leader was also seen being an impediment to the emergence of a mass leader in the state from within the party organisation. In a way, giving the post of deputy chief minister to two low-profile and relatively less known faces seems to be the BJP’s way of rewarding and motivating the cadre. However, as a vital link in intra-coalition coordination, Modi had stood Nitish as well as the NDA in good stead. This responsibility now falls on the new deputy chief ministers; how they handle it remains to be seen.
On the other side, Nitish, by beating back anti-incumbency, has become the quintessential survivor of Patliputra politics. Despite its electoral ascendance in the state, the BJP continues to value him as a political resource because of the social coalition he has built over the last two decades as well as how he has made good governance a constituency in itself. In the absence of a mass leader in its own fold, the BJP can’t afford to dispense with Nitish’s leadership, especially as the alliance has a wafer-thin majority in the Assembly.
In the coming months, as the expectations of the mandate intersect with the pulls and pushes of coalition politics, Bihar is set to be as politically riveting as ever.
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