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Wily Nitish keeping his options open?

Statesman News Service |

kalyani shankar
Politics makes strange bedfellows. One should not be surprised at the various opportunistic political moves that are currently taking place. Secular parties are trying to make the next election a secular vs communal fight after Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi was made the campaign chief of the BJP.
A classic example is the state of Bihar, where the chief minister Nitish Kumar has decided to sever a 17-year-old connection with the BJP on the issue of Modi. Nitish is a Lohiate and his shrewdness is coated with modesty unlike Modi who is projecting himself as a superman who can change India. Neither has hidden his ambition to become the king or the king-maker after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Both are trying to bid for power on the strength of the Bihar or Gujarat model of development.
What is Nitish Kumar&’s game plan? The decision to break away from the NDA was not a hasty one, as Nitish has been working to a plan ever since he realised Modi&’s ambition. His aversion grew over the months after Modi started pushing himself on the centre-stage.  Nitish quickly cut him to size and prevented Modi from campaigning during the Lok Sabha or Assembly elections in Bihar for fear of losing his Muslim support, but the 2014 Lok Sabha elections are different. How can Nitish stop Modi from entering Bihar if the latter is the campaign in charge?  Nitish had more or less made up his mind to break away.  He has been preparing the party for the past many months to live without BJP support.
There was also another factor, which made him sever his connection as his bête noire Lalu Prasad was gaining ground. He wants to ensure that the RJD chief, who is getting himself politically resurrected, does not succeed further. The result of the prestigious Maharajganj by-election was the latest signal. A humbled Lalu still holds popularity among the minorities despite the fact that he lost power in 2005.
Nitish&’s immediate concern is the coming Lok Sabha poll, where he wants to improve on the party&’s present tally of 22 seats. In his mastery over caste politics, Nitish had separated the Paswan community from the Atidalits (the most backward dalits, like Mushashars) and aimed at smaller communities with one or two per cent population. He has also separated the Other Backward Classes (OBC) and took away a large chunk of Lalu&’s voters. In his catchment area, the alliance with the BJP had added the upper caste and the Bhumihar votes. This coalition has lost its sway over the years. Therefore, he needs the crucial Muslim support now more than ever. The demography of Bihar is fast changing with the number of Muslim voters on the rise. Nitish wants to use the Modi card to get the Muslim voters who may be split between the Congress, RJD and LJP. Secondly, the Bihar development process is slow and Nitish wants to get hold of an emotional issue and Modi has provided that.
Now that he has taken the plunge, what would be his future plans? Nitish has made it clear in his recent interviews that he would keep his options open and will not do anything in a hurry. He has several options including an alliance with the Congress. The Congress, which has been wiped out form the map of Bihar for more than two decades, wants to align with the JD-U.  The party is looking to a combination of Congress-LJP and JD-U, which could be formidable. The Congress hopes that the upper caste may also come back to it deserting the BJP. The Congress is willing to dump Lalu. A three-cornered fight will be advantageous for the Congress.
The Congress is wooing Nitish with promises of a special economic package for Bihar, on the lines of his demand for support. Nitish also got unconditional support from the Congress that helped him win the confidence vote. But will Nitish choose this option?  After all, his party is surviving on an anti-Congressism plank; would he like to throw away that plank?  Of course, by aligning with the Congress, he could keep Lalu out of the coalition, but the JD-U, at best, could only go for seat adjustments and an alliance is possible only after the polls.
The second option is to use the proposed Federal Front, which is being talked about as alternative to the UPA and the NDA. It is too early to talk of the Federal Front, as it is yet to take shape. Perhaps, Nitish sees that in the present political scenario where neither the UPA nor the NDA is in a position to manage the magic figure, there is a chance for regional satraps including himself after the polls. In that event, he would like to be on the right side of the Congress. When the time comes the Congress might support his candidature for the prime ministership as it has publicly recognised his secular credentials. 
The third option is to go back to the NDA if the BJP dumps Modi, as he has not yet been chosen as the NDA prime ministerial candidate.  This may be far-fetched, but in politics, anything can happen. A leader like Nitish Kumar will not disclose his cards and will keep them close to his chest. But one thing is certain ~ there will be new political equations and realignment of forces in the coming months which will be interesting to watch. The NDA split is only the beginning.