It was a make or break election for the Bharatiya Janata Party, especially for its prospects in the Hindi heartland. The party had lost power at the Centre a year back. Mulayam Singh Yadav was firmly ensconced in Uttar Pradesh. Lalu Yadav was back in active politics after a brief hiatus behind bars in the fodder scam. He had led the UPA to win a majority seats in Bihar in the 2004 general elections. The railways minister in the Manmohan Singh government was itching to get Bihar under his belt.
Amidst all this and an all pervasive gloom in the saffron front, elections to the Bihar assembly were held in November 2005.
The Samata Party, as it was called then, was led by veteran socialist George Fernandes who wanted his close associate Digvijaya Singh (former MP from Banka in Bihar, not to be confused with Congress leader and former Madhya Pradesh CM) to be nominated the NDA’s chief ministerial candidate.
As a junior partner, the BJP had conceded the leadership of the alliance in Bihar to the Samata Party. But a section in the party also understood the importance of projecting a Backward leader as the NDA face if the alliance were to have any chance of taking on Lalu Yadav’s RJD.
Matters dragged on for a fortnight when, in the middle of the hectic campaign, Arun Jaitley, then general secretary in-charge of Bihar, called up LK Advani and convinced the former deputy PM to name Nitish Kumar as the CM face.
The decision not only won the Samata-BJP combine their first clear victory in the Assembly polls, but provided much-needed toehold to the party in the face of electoral setbacks in many states and at the Centre.
The then MP from Bhagalpur, Sushil Modi, who had led the charge against Lalu in the fodder scam, was chosen to be Nitish Kumar’s deputy in the NDA government in Bihar.
This partnership between Nitish and Sushil Modi has remained intact for over 15 years now. There have been a few setbacks in the interim though; when Nitish Kumar broke away from the BJP to tie up with Lalu in 2015. But the two parties were back on the saddle together again.
And after all these years, through the rough and tumble, Jaitley remained the necessary glue which bound the alliance together. Even when they fought on different sides, the communication between BJP and JD(U) never really broke down.
The rapprochement between the BJP and Nitish Kumar ahead of the 2019 general elections was driven out of political compulsions. The Bihar CM was wary of the domineering RJD under Lalu. The BJP wanted to deny opposition the chance to build an alternative narrative and leadership for Lok Sabha polls.
So the BJP conceded to all its allies in the run-up to the polls. For the 17% votes the JD(U) polled in the last general elections, the BJP gave Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) 17 seats to contest. With a clear majority under its belt, the JD(U) was offered just one seat in the union council. Miffed, Nitish Kumar decided to opt out.
Some of the vociferous detractors of both Nitish Kumar and Sushil Modi were handsomely rewarded in the new government. Rabble rousing Giriraj Singh was elevated to the rank of cabinet minister, state president Nityanand Rai was made state minister and allocated Home portfolio.
In the last 100 days, both BJP and JD(U) have been trying to test waters to provoke a response. With 14 months to go for the assembly elections, the allies need time to strategise — both within and outside.
In the last one week, junior BJP legislators have sought that leadership of the alliance be handed over to other claimants. JD(U) responded with a media blitzkrieg. Huge billboards sprung up in Patna with the tagline Kyun Karen Vichaar, Jab Theeke Hain Nitish Kumar.
The JD(U) it seems wants the BJP to settle the leadership issue for Bihar polls. It wants the NDA to announce in no uncertain terms that Kumar will lead the alliance in November 2020.
BJP leader and Nitish Kumar’s deputy Sushil Modi tweeted on Wednesday almost endorsing Nitish’s candidature.
@NitishKumar is the Captain of NDA in Bihar & will remain its Captain in next assembly elections in 2020 also.When Captain is hitting 4 & 6 & defeating rivals by inning where is the Q of any change.— Sushil Kumar Modi (@SushilModi) September 11, 2019
The tweet vanished off the timeline, but then re-appeared after a few hours. The BJP has, however, not confirmed if this indeed is the official party line.
The jostling ahead of the next Bihar assembly polls has begun. It happens in any alliance talk. But the ground reality has changed considerably over the years. The BJP is a dominant political force in the country. It has shown both appetite and inclination to emerge out of the shadow of its regional partners in states where it had been a minor player. Its second rung leaders are ambitious and do not want to remain a vassal beneficiary of the dominant player.
Moreover, the BJP, as in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, has exhibited ability to get votes on its own.