Arey chhodiye (chuck it)!” was how Nitish Kumar dismissed questions about his former colleague RCP Singh’s suggestion that there would be a merger of the former’s Janata Dal (United) and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal.
It’s so typical of the Bihar chief minister. He is always emphatic and dismissive about predictions concerning his next move—probably because he himself can’t predict it until he makes it. When he parted ways with Lalu Yadav in 1994, who knew that he would align with him again two decades later? When poll strategist Prashant Kishor brought them together in 2015, who knew that Kumar would part ways with Lalu two years later—that, too, to shake hands with Narendra Modi whose prime ministerial candidature had been his breaking point with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), his ally for 17 years? And in 2017, too, who could predict that he would join hands with Lalu again five years later?
So, yes, chuck it! Nitish Kumar himself can’t predict what he will do in the coming months. But Lalu and Tejashwi Yadav do seem to know what they want to do in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
Also read: Nitish Kumar vows “never to ally with BJP again”, says will work with ‘samajwadis’ for country’s progress
Rise of Tejashwi Yadav
An indication of Lalu and Tejashwi’s plan came in the resolution passed at the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s national executive meeting in Delhi last Monday. It said that the final decision about changing the name of the RJD, its electoral symbol and allied issues would be taken by Lalu Yadav or Tejashwi Yadav.
This resolution has taken even RJD leaders by surprise. What was the need for this resolution? And the context and the objective! That’s why it has re-ignited talks about the JD(U)-RJD merger. It’s not something new. Mulayam Singh Yadav was earlier making efforts to bring together splinters of the erstwhile Janata Dal. In 2015, when Lalu Yadav was reluctant to accept Kumar as the CM candidate, it was Mulayam who prevailed over the former to relent for the sake of his ambitious unification project. The Samajwadi Party leader is no more and so the driving force behind this grand project is gone.
But Lalu and Tejashwi seem inclined to pursue this, albeit at a less grand scale, as is evident from the RJD’s resolution. They have reasons to. Without this larger objective, there was no reason for Tejashwi to re-enter into an alliance with Nitish Kumar who had conveniently used a CBI FIR against him, his deputy at the time, to dump the RJD and re-align with the BJP in 2017. Why would Tejashwi want to be used by Kumar again? After all, the young RJD leader has come a long way in the past five years. He almost pulled it off in the last assembly election, in the process transcending his father’s Muslim-Yadav constituencies to galvanise the youth. He is arguably the most popular leader in Bihar today, with Nitish Kumar well past his prime and the BJP having no pan-Bihar face.
With Kumar’s equations with the BJP getting worse day by day when they were together, Tejashwi could have waited for them to fall apart. He has turned out to be a shrewder politician than many thought he was. Why would he then be a deputy CM again and lose his main plank—anti-incumbency against JD(U)-BJP government— which almost worked in the 2020 polls? And why would the RJD ‘sacrifice’ two of its ministers—Kartik Kumar and Sudhakar Singh—when it has Kumar on his knees?
Having emerged as a popular, powerful leader in his own right, why would Tejashwi agree to play second fiddle to Kumar and compromise his and his party’s long-term interests? These questions take us to the RJD resolution and what RCP Singh, a former Kumar confidante, had to say about the JD(U)-RJD merger.
Also read: Why a surprise move at RJD national meet has Bihar buzzing about party’s merger with JD(U)
Merger with Lalu’s party only option to avoid ‘hostile takeover’
Lalu-Tejashwi know Nitish Kumar had to return to them under compulsion. The BJP was out there to finish him politically. How long could Modi’s party play second fiddle to Nitish Kumar in Bihar? How long could it nurse the wound of Kumar snubbing and embarrassing then-Gujarat CM in 2010—first by cancelling dinner for BJP leaders in Patna and then rejecting the Rs 5 crore flood relief assistance offered by Gujarat? So, in the 2020 assembly election, it used Modi’s self-styled ‘Hanuman’, Chirag Paswan to bring down the JD(U)’s tally to 43 in the 243-member assembly. The BJP was the big brother in the alliance now and BJP leaders made Kumar realise it every day as they taunted at and criticised his government publicly.
The last assembly election also showed that Kumar was a shadow of his former self in Bihar. The logical next step for the ‘big brother’—as also its proven track record—was to get Kumar, a political liability that weighed the BJP down, out of the way. If 40 of the 56 Shiv Sena MLAs could defect from their party, the JD(U) was left with a total of 45 MLAs who must already be anxious about their future with Kumar losing his sheen. For the BJP, the question was a matter of timing—before or after the next Lok Sabha election? Whenever it would happen, Kumar would be left with virtually nothing—deserting colleagues, badly eroded mass base and bleak future. Even if he were to think of putting up a fight one last time, he would stand no chance against an array of adversaries, from the BJP to the RJD, Chirag Paswan and who not. In these circumstances, surviving every day must have been a challenge to Nitish Kumar. He was extremely vulnerable and he would know it better than anyone else.
Lalu and Tejashwi Yadav might have just made him feel more secure. But they must want more than a pound of flesh in the bargain. If Nitish Kumar agrees to merge his party with the RJD, the unified outfit under Tejashwi becomes a formidable force in Bihar. In exchange, the Yadavs lend their weight behind Kumar’s national ambitions. Even if Modi’s BJP retains power in 2024, Kumar becomes the national face of the RJD—or whatever name the new outfit may have—while Tejashwi gets a shot at the CM’s chair for a year or so. As the heir to Lalu’s and Kumar’s political legacy, Tejashwi becomes a formidable force in Bihar politics for a long time to come. Kumar wouldn’t mind that. He must know that he couldn’t have completed his current tenure, anyway, with or without the BJP. Now he can look forward to having a decent arrangement with Lalu and Tejashwi to stay relevant on the national political centre stage.
If Kumar were to entertain any other idea, he should be ready to fight bids for a ‘hostile takeover’ from many parties. He is a much smarter player for that. One shouldn’t be surprised if Kumar was privy to the RJD’s political resolution before it was moved.
DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.