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Bihar polls: Modi's master plan to cut his 'ally' Nitish to size

Navneet Mundhra
·4-min read

‘Ambition is like love, impatient both of delays and rivals.’ - Sir John Denham

One can fault Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, for many things but not for not being ambitious enough. His rise from being one of the thousands humble 'pracharaks' of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to becoming the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy is underpinned by fierce ambition.

He combatted internecine strife within the Bharatiya Janata Party, ruthlessly cut his party rivals to size, handled pre-2014 hostile media deftly and ruled the Gujarat state as a chief minister with an iron grip for 13 year to emerge as the undisputed numero uno. Vanquishing the beleaguered Congress in 2014 seemed like a stroll in the park.

Since 2014, when Modi became the prime minister, the BJP has expanded its footprint considerably across India. From winning many states where it had been relegated to the wilderness for years to even capturing states such as Assam and Tripura, where it had negligible presence, the BJP's massive expanse bears the imprimatur of Modi's ambition, audacity and unremitting popularity.

(Photo by Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
(Photo by Santosh Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

In Amit Shah, the current Home Minister and former president of the BJP, Modi has an able Sancho Panza who through his strategic and administrative acumen, coupled with underhand shenanigans, carries out Modi's vision and optimises his popularity on the ground.

So sweeping, and seismic, is their ambition that the BJP has started cannibalising its own allies. In the 2014 Maharashtra state Assembly elections, the BJP took over the mantle of a senior partner in an alliance with the Shiv Sena. Although currently out of power in the state, it is by far the biggest political party in Maharashtra in terms of seats and vote percentage. Earlier, it could only muster the 3rd or 4th position.

Now, on the heels of the upcoming Bihar elections, the plan has been set in motion to outstrip the incumbent Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his party Janata Dal United. The BJP has always been the junior partner in the alliance but the tables are set to be turned.

All the opinion polls evince that after being at the helm of affairs as the chief minister, Nitish Kumar's popularity is on the wane. There is palpable anger and anti-incumbency against him. However, there is no dent in Prime Minister Modi's popularity. The electoral arithmetic is hugely in the alliance's favour and if one goes by the conventional route, Nitish is set to be the chief minister once again.

But Modi and Shah abhor playing a convenient ‘second fiddle’. Not only do they hanker after making the BJP the undisputed party leader in Bihar, the duo also eyes the chief ministerial berth. Hence, their ally at the national level, Lok Janshakti Party -- headed by Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan and now steered by his son Chirag -- has been prompted to be the proverbial Trojan horse.

Chirag has announced that his party would fight against Janata Dal (United) in all the seats but would not put up candidates against the BJP. Making his stand clear, the Paswan scion asserted that while he considers Modi as his leader, he isn't pleased with Nitish Kumar and the performance of the Bihar government. The LJP has announced that it would contest 143 seats, out of 243, in the upcoming elections. The BJP and the JDU, in an alliance, have settled for 121 and 122 seats, respectively.

This plan of action suits both the LJP and the BJP. It enables the LJP to mop up pro-Modi votes and anti-Nitish votes, and expand its base across Bihar to become a formidable force in the state. Also, at a time when both Nitish and Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad are in the twilight of their political careers, Chirag sees the opportunity to emerge as primus inter pares among the younger lot of leaders in the state.

The BJP, who is in alliance with the JDU, will garner both pro-Modi and pro-Nitish votes and it would be convenient for them to dump Nitish after the polls if BJP and LJP together have enough seats to form the government in Bihar. The LJP has declared that its MLAs would support the saffron party after the election and will ask for a BJP chief minister to helm the government. Also, Modi hasn't forgotten the slight that Nitish walked out of the National Democratric Alliance opposing his (Modi's) elevation as the prime ministerial candidate in 2013.

So, despite not being in the formal alliance, BJP and LJP are in cahoots and will together sweep away pro-Modi, pro-Nitish, Paswan and anti-Nitish votes. On the other hand, the BJP, despite being in a formal alliance with the JDU, is itching to undercut Nitish and his clout.

At a time when the Opposition in Bihar, Lalu's emaciated RJD and the Congress, are fighting a losing battle, the BJP has set a Trojan horse in its own alliance to settle scores and assert its domineering preeminence.

Follow the author on Twitter (@navneet_mundhra)