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Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar looked firm and defiant as he faced television cameras and reporters on the sidelines of his weekly ‘Lok Samvad’ programme on May 15. He had been ducking questions on allegations of shady land deals levelled against his ally Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad for more than a month now. However, on that particular day, he finally broke his silence and dared the central government to take action “if there is any substance in the allegations”.
The very next day, the income tax (I-T) department conducted searches at 22 premises in Delhi, Gurugram and Rewari in connection with the allegation. Seething with anger, Prasad took to Twitter to hit back. “BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) ko naya alliance partner mubarak ho. Lalu Prasad jhukne aur darne wala nahi hai (Congratulations to the new alliance partner of the BJP. Lalu Prasad will neither bow nor bend),” he tweeted. Within seconds, leaders were wondering whether the “new alliance partner” barb was meant for Kumar.
However, minutes later the RJD chief clarified that by ‘new alliance partner’, he meant the triumvirate of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the I-T department and the Enforcement Directorate. Still, it was enough to spark speculation and perhaps a sign of things to come. Less than a month later, the speculations turned into reality, as Kumar decided to back the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA’s) presidential nominee, Ram Nath Kovind. It sparked a war of words between the alliance partners in the ruling Grand Alliance — a conglomeration of Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), the RJD and the Congress. With Kumar on one side and Prasad and the Congress on another, the Grand Alliance seems to be in tatters.
Earlier the week, he publicly dared the Congress to gather Opposition parties and set an alternative agenda for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Is the presidential election the only reason for the infighting within the alliance? Insiders say no. According to the JD (U), a majority of the problems rest with the way the Congress lords it over the Opposition. “They are yet to understand that they have to treat us on an equal basis,” said a JD (U) senior leader.
The seeds of this dispute were sown in April, when Kumar met Congress President Sonia Gandhi. He’d urged that Opposition parties jointly field a candidate for the presidential polls. And, even asked that the Congress form an alliance at the national level to take on a resurgent BJP. “It was we who first proposed that the Opposition put up a united candidate to take on the NDA. But, the Congress didn’t heed our demands. Now, it’s trying force its choice on us. This is not how a coalition works,” a JD (U) leader told Business Standard.
Kumar himself blamed the Congress for lack of unity in the anti-BJP Opposition. Reacting to senior Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s “some people believe in many ideologies” barb, the Bihar CM said the JD (U) wouldn’t toe anyone’s line but its own. “I have never compromised with my ideology; it is the Congress which doesn’t believe in one ideology,” Kumar told party leaders during a state working committee meeting last week. Adding: “It’s because of the Congress that we could not have an alliance in UP; it’s because of the Congress that we couldn’t have an alliance in Assam. They didn’t take us into confidence on the presidential polls as well. Forget Opposition unity; with its current behaviour and attitude, the Congress is right now the most valued ally of (Prime Minister) Modi.”
“Nitishji is a politician with a difference. He has made it categorically clear that he doesn’t have prime ministerial ambitions. More, we have made it very clear that we wouldn’t harm the alliance. But, that doesn’t mean we will tolerate criticism of our leader. They can’t lord over us,” JD (U) legislator Neeraj Kumar told Business Standard. “Being a national party, it’s the responsibility of the Congress to cobble an alliance of opposition parties and set an alternative agenda. Most importantly, it has to be an equitable alliance.”
Officially, the Congress has imposed a gag order but leaders say Kumar’s criticism of them shows all is not well within the alliance. “Who would like to get a rap on their knuckles? Do you think we, a national party, will take such preaching from a regional leader? For us, however, everything is decided by the high command. We may be down at the moment but we have a rich history, we will survive,” said a senior Congress leader.
“The general election is now due in less than two years and the Congress is still toying with different formulas and equations. Kumar, whose party could win only 2 of 40 Lok Sabha seats (from Bihar) in the past election, wants to improve its performance. He fears that with the current Congress leadership, his party’s future will also be irretrievably sullied. He might give the alliance a few months but it is bound to be scrapped before the election,” said a senior politician.
According to Congress insiders, the high command has reserved its decision on the alliance until the presidential election. “It’s a matter of numbers now. No party can issue whips in the presidential election. This means the voter — MP, MLA — is free to vote for anyone he or she wants. If a majority of JD (U) legislators vote for Meira Kumar, the high command might force Kumar to his knees,” hoped a party insider. The Congress believes many of Kumar’s MLAs would jump ship. However, reality betrays the Congress’ hopes. At an interaction of Opposition presidential candidate Meira Kumar with RJD and Congress MLAs in Patna, as many as 27 MLAs from both parties skipped the meet. Many feel the ‘grand alliance’ won’t last. If so, the question is what RJD chief Prasad would do. Many say he would try his best to make the alliance work, for the sake of his minister-sons. But, what if he is jailed or his sons targeted? A CBI FIR and subsequent raids at Prasad’s home in Patna showed the central investigation agency has hit the RJD chief where it hurt the most: His attempt to pass on his political legacy to his younger son Tejaswi Yadav.
The Congress termed it as a political vendetta against opposition parties. Kumar, on the other hand, is yet to speak his mind. This is troubling the RJD leaders the most. Most RJD leaders think Kumar left Prasad hanging. “Their silence is deafening. For the past seven years, Prasad has worked tirelessly to establish Tejaswi as his scion, both in party and in state politics. He had to face opposition from inside the party and also the family (his wife Rabri wanted Tej Pratap as the party’s future). It’s because of Laluji that Kumar is the CM. But when Laluji needed him the most by his side in Patna, he was recuperating in Rajgir,” said a RJD MLA. The veteran gave a hint about the future last week. “The stars keep changing their position. If I could be jailed, they might try to break us apart. We have to remain strong,” he told partymen at the RJD’s 21st foundation day on Wednesday.