On June 17, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Lalu Prasad, along with his wife, Rabri Devi, and both his minister sons, Tejaswi Yadav and Tej Pratap Yadav, attended the Iftar party hosted by Bihar Chief Minister (CM) Nitish Kumar at the latter’s official residence in Patna. Prasad used the occasion to showcase the unity of the grand alliance and dismissed any rift between him and Kumar. They smiled and posed before the cameras and their bonhomie seemed genuine.
Just a week later the bonhomie was nowhere to be seen. Kumar did turn up at an Iftar party hosted by Prasad, but the atmosphere was “tense”. The two stalwarts did hug each other after repeated requests by shutterbugs, but the embrace looked forced. They sat near each other, but barely smiled or spoke. They were more interested in talking to others than to each other. In the past, at events hosted by the RJD's first family, Prasad used to personally attend to Kumar and even served him. He didn’t bother that evening. “It’s all before you. What more is there to say?” asked a senior RJD minister. In less than two years of coming to power, the grand alliance in Bihar is facing its biggest crisis. The root cause is the JD(U)’s decision to break opposition ranks by backing National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate and former Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind for the presidential election. An open war of words among the alliance partners — with the JD(U), on one side, and the RJD and the Congress, on the other — threatened the very existence of the alliance.
Most importantly, the bickering didn’t stop at the level of lower-rung spokespersons. Top-level leaders of all the three parties got involved and took pot-shots at each other. Things deteriorated so much that the party leaderships had to issue gag orders to put an end to this.
Until a couple of months ago, Kumar was in favour of a united opposition. In April, he met Congress President Sonia Gandhi and expressed his desire to form a grand alliance at the national level to stop the BJP juggernaut. According to many in the party, sensing the Congress’s reluctance, Kumar started drifting. He skipped a meeting of opposition parties called by Gandhi on May 26, but agreed to have lunch with Prime Minister Narendra Modi the very next day.
However, Kumar was still reluctant to be seen against opposition unity in the presidential election. This changed the minute the BJP announced Kovind would be its candidate. According to JD(U) insiders, the party believes that supporting the former Bihar governor, who belongs to one of the most depressed communities, would help in the upcoming elections. This, along with Kumar’s personal camaraderie with the ex-governor, played a pivotal role in his decision.
Kovind was one of the very few governors with whom the chief minister enjoyed a cordial relationship. Despite serious reservations of local BJP leaders, Kovind supported the state government in its mission of prohibition.
However, Kumar’s decision made JD(U) allies unhappy. Many RJD and Congress leaders privately say they are bewildered by his stand. The Congress rushed Ghulam Nabi Azad to coax him to reverse his decision. If sources in the Congress are to be believed, Kumar ignored desperate pleas of its leaders to at least postpone his announcement till the time the opposition parties could announce their common candidate. “Kumar believes in many ideologies. We, on the other hand, will never join hands with the BJP,” told a visibly hurt Azad at Patna Airport on June 20.
The next day, Prasad asked Kumar not to make “a historic blunder”. “I appeal to Nitish to avoid a historic blunder. We always fight for ideology,” said Prasad. More importantly, when asked if Kumar had betrayed the opposition, he said, “Dhokha hai yaa nahi, ye Nitish jane.” However, Kumar refused to budge.
“I take pride in Meira Kumar being Bihar ki beti. But why is she being fielded to be defeated?” asked a defiant Kumar, coming out of Prasad’s Iftar party in Patna. “If I am making a historic mistake, so be it. The opposition should actually formulate a strategy to win the 2019 election and then make her (Meira Kumar) president in 2022.”
His deputy in the state cabinet, Tejaswi Yadav, retorted: “Victory or defeat can only be decided in the election. How can one predict defeat before an election? We have not fielded our candidate to lose.” And thus began the war of words between the alliance partners: Name calling, arm-twisting and verbal volleys. The grand alliance was in tatters. The JD(U) issued an ultimatum to the RJD to act against its leaders who constantly targeted the Bihar CM, saying it would shorten the life of the alliance. On Tuesday, JD(U) National Spokesperson K C Tyagi spelled out the biggest ever threat to the alliance by saying that the party had felt “more comfortable” with the BJP than with the Congress and the RJD. Finally, a truce was called on Wednesday, when all sides issued diktats to hold fire. Both Kumar and Prasad said that the alliance was “rock-solid” and talks of a break-up were a media creation.
However, no one, not even their own leaders, believes this. “There is deep mistrust among the alliance partners. The Congress is not sure about Kumar’s intentions. The JD(U) wants to be seen as independent of the Congress and wants to keep the BJP eager. As far as the RJD is concerned, Prasad doesn’t want to destabilise the government as his sons' future is tied to it. This doesn’t mean that Prasad doesn’t understand Kumar’s plan,” said a senior politician.