Walking the tightrope
For perhaps the most voluble antagonist of Narendra Modi at one time, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar seems to be running out of options on the relationship with his alliance partner Laloo Prasad Yadav and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). It is natural, therefore, that he should be taking a back seat on many issues pertaining to opposition unity, like the matter of a joint opposition candidate for the presidential elections.
From the very beginning of his present term as chief minister, Nitish has felt the pressure of the alliance with Yadav and the weight of the many scams in which the RJD leader has been embroiled. However, it was initially easy to get by that hurdle because the RJD emerged as the single largest party in the 2015 assembly polls with 80 seats. And to be fair to the RJD supremo, he was not too brazen with his muscle flexing while exacting his pound of flesh in return for supporting the Janata Dal (United) leader as chief minister.
Two of the latest cases involving the RJD this week could contribute to the push factor for Kumar. Firstly, the arrest of his daughter Misa’s chartered account and allegations of benami properties linked to the RJD first family have the makings of a major problem for the Janata Dal (United). The other case is also explosive — the life term given to former RJD Lok Sabha MP and Yadav confidante in a 22-year-old murder case.
For a man who is about as touchy about his personal reputation as the prime Mmnister, this would be tough to digest. The BJP, its one time alliance partner in Bihar knows this, especially his former deputy Sushil Modi, who has likened Kumar to Dhritirashtra, the blind Kaurava king in the Mahabharata, for not seeing the rot around him. These are issues that are likely to have a bearing on the mahagathbandhan partners given the distance covered since the 2015 assembly win and the BJP’s increasing belligerence to ensure a wider presence.
There was some flutter following Yadav’s weighted tweet last week that the BJP had won a new ally. As this was quickly interpreted to mean that the RJD leader was taking pot-shots at his alliance partner, his spokesperson came forward to clarify that by BJP ally, Yadav had actually meant the income tax department, which was the source of his problems in recent weeks. Yadav then put out another tweet, “Don't get so excited. The alliance is unbreakable. Now a process is on to bring together parties with similar views. I am not afraid of the BJP’s government machinery and agencies.” However, there were few who bought that line. Just like Kumar had kept the RJD leader on tenterhooks with his occasional meetings with the BJP, this was perhaps Yadav’s way of getting back at his alliance partner.

It is indeed this belligerence that could see Kumar walk a delicate tightrope for the sake of his political survival. In many ways a Teflon coated leader, Kumar has been able to keep his stable clean regardless of the cases against his RJD ally. However, as a nimble politician, he has realised that constant political jabbing has the potential for permanent harm. Over time, this has forced him to take some steps back to absorb the jabs.
That seems to be a wise thing to do when the chips are down. A past master at keeping his cards close to his chest, overtly this is seen in the fact that he has not been proactive on the issue of opposition unity which many in the anti-BJP alliance believe can be tested in the presidential polls where the BJP could be short of about 20,000 electoral college votes. Those in the opposition ranks who have taken a lead role in this now include Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress and Laloo Prasad Yadav. Kumar has also, rightly, and quietly abandoned prospects — promoted by some — of being a combined opposition consensus candidate for the prime ministership in the next Lok Sabha elections. That was also in deference to the ground situation — the leader of a party with only two seats in the Lok Sabha cannot possibly make a pitch to be prime minister.
The variable in this equation is the BJP and how much into the corner it can push Kumar into. The chief minister has no known weakness that could be his Achilles’ heel. The only one, is the fear of a blot on his name. If the BJP were to exploit that to the hilt, it would be interesting to see how the Bihar chief minister would react and whether the mahagathbandhan would withstand the strain.
Ananda Majumdar