Patna: After swearing in as Bihar chief minister for the eighth time, continuing in the chair with altering allies, Nitish Kumar took a shot at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with an eye on the next Lok Sabha election: "He won in 2014, but will he in 2024?"
Nitish Kumar repeatedly spoke of "working towards opposition unity" to unseat the BJP in New Delhi, he told reporters he was "not a contender for anything" when asked if he wanted to be a prime ministerial candidate. "The question to ask is whether the person who came in 2014 would win in 2024," he said. The assembly election in Bihar is due in 2025, a year after the Lok Sabha election.
Nitish is likely to still be in the chair in 2024, implying that speculations over the opposition's prime ministerial candidate are not going to die down soon, as the INC is weak and the other opposition parties could not even arrive at a consensus for their presidential candidate.
Another regional leader with national ambition, West Bengal's Mamata Banerjee, has been quiet since the Partha Chatterjee-Arpita Mukherjee cash-amassing scandal.
Analysts have for years floated the theory that Nitish Kumar could be the opposition candidate against Prime Minister Modi if the INC were to play a non-leading role. But that reads shallow as he floats in and out of alliances — flexible on ideological questions. Until 9 August, he was a chief minister with BJP support and now he is back with the RJD of old love-hate comrade Lalu Yadav in a new version of a 2015 alliance.
The first version of the JD(U)-RJD-INC tie-up, which they had named "Mahagathbandhan" (Grand Alliance), won the 2015 election. Nitish Kumar had earlier broken up with the BJP, ending a 17-year-old relationship, and resigned as chief minister, excusing himself from the NDA, at the time finding Narendra Modi "communal", with the memory of the 2002 Gujarat riots lingering on.
He then came back to Prime Minister Modi's party in 2017, ditching the Grand Alliance and taking a fresh oath. He stuck with the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and then they together won the 2020 Bihar poll.
Today he said he did not want to be chief minister after the 2020 win with the BJP. "Ask people in the party (JD(U)) what they have been reduced to. I did not want to become chief minister… but I was put under pressure. Then you see what happened. I have not even spoken to you (journalists) in two months."
Nitish Kumar pointed at the drop in JD(U)'s numbers. "How many seats did we win in 2015? And then we went with the same people (BJP) and look at what we have been reduced to." Besides those in the JD(U), Tejashwi Yadav has said the BJP "usurps its partners".
In 2015, Nitish Kumar's JD(U) had won 71 seats — part of the Grand Alliance's 170 — in the Bihar assembly of capacity 243. The RJD was the largest party with 80, but he became the chief minister as was the understanding with Lalu Yadav.
As of now, the JD(U) has 45 seats. The BJP, which has 77, made him chief minister in 2020 despite his lower numbers. The BJP, in fact, always spared more seats for the JD(U) although the Bihar-based party has had a poor rate of winning the seats allotted to it. The BJP extracted a slightly better deal this time, getting two deputy chief ministers to work with Nitish Kumar.
While Nitish Kumar and the JD(U) look to have been spooked by the disintegration of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, this was hardly the first time a ragtag coalition broke, leading to the formation of a government supported by the BJP. Nitish Kumar could have taken solace from the fact that there was no Eknath Shinde-like character in his party ranks. As of now, neither the BJP nor the RJD has a face that can take on the image of the incumbent chief minister.
On his fate after yet another somersault, Nitish Kumar today said, "Whether I will stay or not… let people say what they have to say." After staking his claim yesterday, he said he "never allowed corruption" and "we want brotherhood in society". Standing next to him, Tejashwi Yadav accused the BJP of dividing people along communal lines: "We are socialists. All of us want that the BJP's agenda shouldn't be implemented in Bihar."