It has been barely a week since the Janata Dal (United) the key role of the Congress in any viable alliance of opposition parties in national politics. This was in line with what Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar had said at a last year.
But that hasn’t meant that Nitish has been vociferous in joining the protest against Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from the Lok Sabha following his conviction in a defamation case. Instead, Nitish’s has yet again sparked attempts to read possible clues – also running the risk of overreading them.
Nitish chose not to engage with the question of Rahul’s disqualification. Instead, he said, “I do not comment on court matters.” But he was quick to add that his party had joined protests against the disqualification. Further, he expressed the wish that many more parties unite against the BJP-led government at the centre in the 2024 Lok Sabha poll. Pitching his efforts towards coordination, he talked about discussions with Congress leaders to work towards an alliance.
These explanations, however, cannot offset the ways in which Nitish’s initial reluctance to comment were decoded in some political circles. The note of restraint in his comments also does not seem to have gone unnoticed. Poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who is walking across Bihar for his Jan Suraj campaign, saw Nitish’s reply as evasive. In a tweet, he dubbed the Bihar CM as the master of prevarication.
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Moreover, Kishor also viewed the comment as mirroring Nitish’s trademark approach of keeping all options open. In his remodelled role as a political activist in the state targeting the current government for its governance failures, it’s possible that Kishor could be reading too much between the lines and overstating the motives behind Nitish’s vague reply.
At the same time, in his long political career, Nitish has been known for his flexible use of political space, with an air of enigma thick with speculative alignments. So, whether it’s a cryptic reply or a visit to an opposition party legislator a few days ago, the hunt for clues is an unending game in Patna’s political circles.
Last August, when Nitish cut ties with the NDA to align with the Mahagathbandhan parties led by the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Congress and others, it was expected that he would eye a role in national politics. The assessment was that he would be one of the many regional stalwarts vying for the national alternative space in the opposition. There was a window to find traction given his experience as a Hindi heartland Lohiaite who had dealt with the coalition era of the 1990s and early years of this century. More significantly, the curtailed strength of his party in Bihar and the inevitable upper hand of the RJD, an old rival, in the new coalition meant he had less elbowroom. Power transfer was only a matter of time.
Even if Nitish denied an active interest in national leadership, his initial attempts to reach out to other regional parties did not make much headway. Its most awkward display was seen in a press conference he attended in Patna with Telangana chief minister and Bharat Rashtra Samithi head K Chandrashekar Rao. But Nitish did shift his reading of the national space to see how alliances would – with the Congress as a pivot and a non-Congress formation. In batting for the Congress steering the alliance of parties against the BJP-led regime, Nitish got a sense of the space.
That is important for Nitish’s idea of leveraging the moving piece, first pitching oneself in a position from where the political space can be surveyed. Long before weighing in on competing and allying possibilities in the national space, he practised it in the power politics of alliances in Bihar over the past three decades. , Nitish is a maximalist, aware of how he and his party can leverage the role of being the missing piece in the inadequate claims of two key rivals to the seat of power. Now in the politics of rivalries in opposition alliance, he seems to be redirecting this approach to a different arena.
Questions have also been raised about the organisational tension within the JDU, prodding Nitish to recalibrate his moves in Patna as well as Delhi. While the was attributed to power play in the party, of KC Tyagi from the party’s national team last week was seen as signs of disquiet over the JDU’s messaging during its new power ties with the RJD. The RJD, a bitter rival turned ally, does not come across as a natural ally to Nitish’s political enterprise. Moreover, the presence of RJD leader and deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav as chief minister in waiting, even occasionally endorsed by Nitish, will not make it easy for the JDU chief and his party to resurrect their political stock.
As this writer :
“The JDU, infested by factions, needs the glue of power to remain intact. But Nitish has been uncharacteristically constrained in offering it full play. He’s aware that a show of solidarity with post Mandal formations like the RJD is fraught with risk in the long run. After all, the configuration of social base and competitive politics hasn’t allowed them a long run in the past, even if the numbers are loaded in their favour. So, the time-buying utility of the current coalition will be constantly tested. This will unnerve the JDU, which will be anxious about poaching.”
It is too early to say whether Nitish’s cautious reply to Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification fits into his brand of non-commital politics. As a keen maximalist of the political space, his reading of rival alliances at the centre and in the state often picks its spell of inaction as much as it is alert to timing its action.
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