The INDIA bloc appears to be on the brink of unravelling as a third key leader, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, appears likely to walk out. Sources said it is likely that Mr Kumar, in a last-minute U-turn, will partner the BJP in the coming Lok Sabha elections. Over the last two days, two key leaders — Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal — have all but cut ties with INDIA bloc, ruling out any alliance with the Congress and saying they would go solo in Bengal and Punjab.
Mr Kumar has called all his MLAs to Patna. Sources said he would resign first and then stake claim with the help of the BJP, Jitan Ram Manjhi and others. After the new cabinet is formed, he would recommend dissolution of the present House and seek new mandate.
The majority mark in the 243-member Bihar assembly is 122. The RJD has 79 seats. Mr Kumar can form government with 82 seats of the BJP and 45 of his Janata Dal United. Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal has 79 seats.
Sources said even though state BJP leaders are skeptical about Nitish Kumar’s return, top leadership of the party has made up its mind and issued a gag order for the state unit. State leaders have been categorically told not to badmouth the Chief Minister, sources said. State BJP chief Samrat Chaudhary has been called to Delhi. He and senior Bihar leader Sushil Modi are likely to meet Union Home Minister and the BJP’s chief strategist Amit Shah this evening.
For Mr Kumar, 72, this would be the fifth change of camp. Since 2013, he has been swinging between the NDA and the mahagathbandhan, all the while keeping his job in the state intact. He switched sides last in 2022, just three years after he had walked out of the Grand Alliance and joined the NDA.
The signs have all been there over the last weeks, with the Chief Minister’s sharp comments on dynastic politics and the subsequent retort from Lalu Yadav’s daughter on social media, despite later deletion, expanding the rift. Mr Kumar’s comments were seen as a snub to ally Lalu Yadav and his son Tejashwi Yadav, even though the Chief Minister’s Party, the Janata Dal United, denied it today.
Yesterday, Mr Kumar’s lack of response to the Congress invitation for Bharat Jodo Yatra, put a question mark on his appearance and raised speculation about the unity of the Opposition front.
Sources said Mr Kumar has been upset over the lack of clarity in INDIA bloc’s poll preparations and being passed over as a possible Prime Ministerial candidate. The delay in seat-sharing talks for the Lok Sabha polls had been a further aggravation.
The build-up to the change of camp had started with Nitish Kumar sacking Lallan Singh and returning as the JDU chief. Sources indicated that Lallan Singh did not lobby enough and communicate Mr Kumar’s ambitions to the INDIA bloc members, which was why Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal had proposed Mallikarjun Kharge’s name for the top post.
The Centre’s Bharat Ratna for former Bihar Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur appears to have been a turning point scripted in advance.
The Mahagathbandhan allies, caught unawares, have been trying to pacify the irked Chief Minister. Sources said Lalu Yadav has already dialled Mr Kumar. His Rashtriya Janata Dal has called a meeting of its leaders in Patna. The Congress, too, is trying to get on the hotline to get Mr Kumar to join the Bharat Jodo Nyaya Yatra when it enters Bihar.
For the INDIA bloc, which is struggling to step up its gameplan, finalise seat sharing and get on with its campaign, a break-up with Nitish Kumar will be big blow.
Nitish Kumar was widely seen as the key interlocutor in the formation of the Opposition front, getting on board disparate elements like the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party which did not see eye-to-eye with the Congress. Both parties are now have one foot out of the camp, putting a question mark on its future.