The ongoing shake-up in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to rid the party of the old guards close to Nitish Kumar and shift the baton of state leadership to the next generation seems to have come in the way of cabinet expansion in Bihar.
It is little over a month that Nitish Kumar was sworn-in as the chief minister but the cabinet expansion exercise has not yet been completed causing heartburn among the ruling alliance legislators.
Despite having 74 MLAs in its kitty, the BJP kept its promise and made Kumar the chief minister with 14 ministers, including two deputy chief ministers. As per the existing rule, a maximum of 36 ministers, including the chief minister, can be appointed in the 243-member Bihar assembly.
Kumar has also pointed out that the delay was on part of the BJP, which is a bigger partner now in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in Bihar. “So far, no proposal has been received from the BJP. We will think over it when the BJP proposes expansion of the state cabinet,” Kumar said in response to queries.
In fact, the BJP is trying to set its house in order before it diligently governs Bihar as a 'Big Brother' and asserts its dominance in every sphere of governance. It is likely to induct a new set of state leaders into the council of ministers.
Before this exercise, the BJP accommodated veterans like Prem Kumar, Nand Kishore Yadav, Vinod Narayan Jha, Ram Narayan Mandal et al as chairpersons of the different legislative committees. All of them were ministers in the previous government and also serious aspirants for ministerial berths this time.
However, their appointment as heads of legislative committees is an indication that they will not be inducted into the Council of Ministers anymore now and may gradually be relegated to the class of Margdarshak Mandal of the party.
The chief minister may have put the ball in the BJP’s court for the inordinate delay in the cabinet expansion but it is seemingly aimed at breaking the coterie of a section of Bihar BJP leaders around him. The first victim was former deputy chief minister Sushil Modi, who has been pulled to national politics as Rajya Sabha member and is all set to get a berth in the union council of ministers.
It is expected that the BJP would bring in young leaders like Samrat Choudhary, Nitish Mishra, Nitin Navin, Sanjeev Chourasia and others into the cabinet. They will be pursuing the BJP agenda more vigorously than their predecessors.
The BJP move to transfer power to the younger generation of leaders is to keep Nitish Kumar on a tight leash and carry forward its long-pending agenda, which could not be taken up because the saffron party was allowed to play only second fiddle in the matters of governance in the two previous NDA governments in Bihar.
While the BJP is besieged with the pangs of generational shift, the Janata Dal (U) is reportedly insisting on fair share in the council of ministers besides sticking on some key portfolios. In the first phase of the cabinet formation, some departments like disaster management and Panchayati Raj were given to the BJP considering its numerical preponderance over the JD(U) in terms of MLAs.
However, the BJP wants some other key portfolios like education, rural works and water resources. So, it is not only the number of ministerial berths but also some key departments which are proving to be irritants between the two NDA allies.
The two allies are also bargaining for proportionate share in the union council of ministers which too is likely to be expanded once the ongoing farmers’ stir is over. The JD(U) is insisting on at least three berths given its substantial numbers in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, where it has supported the BJP agenda like Article 370, Ram temple, CAA and other contentious issues.
Facing the strain due to the fragile number of its legislators, the JD(U) is considering inducting former union minister Upendra Kushwaha into the state cabinet. But the move is fraught with danger as it may trigger discontent among some senior party leaders who are not in favour of inducting Kushwaha.
The present crisis may end by mid-January next year but signs of strains between the two major NDA allies have become discernible. The BJP, now dominant partner in the new NDA government, got its poll promise of giving Covid-19 vaccine for free in Bihar and creating 20 lakh job opportunities approved by the second meeting of the state cabinet.
On his part, Kumar also strongly pushed his pet agenda of Saat Nischay-Part 2. He is also busy giving final shape to the blueprint of development for the next five years. Kumar had contested the 2020 polls on the plank of ‘Saath Nischay-1’ comprising seven schemes for providing piped drinking water, toilets to every household, metallic roads linking villages and students credit card for interest-free loan to pursue higher studies.
Several BJP leaders have been vocal in criticising the deteriorating law and order in the state during this period while revenue minister Ram Surat Rai has stated that corruption was rampant in his department.
Though the JD(U) has been holding Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Chirag Paswan responsible for its defeat in the just-concluded assembly elections and demanding his ouster from the NDA, a section of BJP leaders have openly claimed that there was no move as such to disown the LJP at the moment.
The crisis between the two allies will confound if Chirag Paswan continues in the NDA. It will be a direct affront on Kumar, who may take an extreme step eventually.
Despite remaining in NDA, the JD(U) has maintained its independent stand on many issues and kept its secular image intact. The JD(U) had supported the BJP on crucial issues like Ram temple but with a rider that it should be constructed only when the apex court gave the favourable verdict.
The JD(U) had strongly supported the BJP on the issue of CAA in both houses of parliament. But on the issue of identification of foreign nationals especially from the neighbouring countries, it has been quite critical.