Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) speaks with Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of the eastern state of Bihar, during a meeting in New Delhi. Photo: AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has been left in a critical situation even before going to the general election polls.

With the BJP gifting nearly half of its quota of the Lok Sabha seats it contested in the 2014 general elections to its new ally Nitish Kumar in Bihar, the party faces a new enemy: rebels within the party who have lost their seats as a result of the deal. Of the many seats gifted, five are currently occupied by the BJP, making things worse.

The new problem has arisen after chief minister Nitish Kumar, who heads the ruling Janata Dal United party (JD-U) in Bihar, returned to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in July 2017—some two years after he had won the 2015 Bihar state polls in alliance with politician Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress party.

The dramatic U-turn by the chief minister saw the 53-member BJP, whose election results set it up to sit in opposition, suddenly coming to power while the ruling RJD with 80 members in the 243-member Bihar assembly was overnight pushed onto the opposition benches.

Seat-sharing troubles

The power-sharing has caused trouble within the BJP camp. Although the leaders are not in open revolt, the party can anticipate real trouble once the names of seats and candidates are announced.

In the last 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP contested 30 out of Bihar’s total of 40 seats while sparing the remaining seats for its two allies—Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) headed by federal minister Ram Vilas Paswan, and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) led by former federal minister Upendra Kushwaha who has since left the NDA.

The JD(U) was not a part of the NDA then and fought against the BJP led alliance, securing just two seats. The BJP, on the other hand, emerged victorious in 22 seats out of the 30 it contested, while its allies were able to win nine out of 10 seats.

Kumar’s JD(U) party’s return to the NDA camp may create new trouble for the BJP in Bihar.

Under the new seat-sharing deal reached between them, both the BJP and JD(U) are now contesting 17 seats at the upcoming general election. This has caused a loss of 13 Lok Sabha seats, including five BJP-held seats.

Apart from this the new ally headed by Kumar has also staked claims on another six seats held by the BJP, describing them as JD(U)’s traditional seats where his party has a major chance of victory.

This will mean more sitting parliamentarians having to give up their seats. These developments have raised a wall of dissent within the BJP, giving its leadership much to be concerned about.

“The BJP has already lost 50% of its seats to its new ally (JD-U) but what is more strange [is] Nitish Kumar also dictating who will contest from where. This is not a good situation for the BJP,” commented poll analyst NK Chaudhary, a retired Patna University professor.

“No credibility”

Many BJP parliamentarians are furious with their seats being given away to an ally under the alliance deal. They have little opportunity left to try their luck elsewhere since major anti-BJP parties are also fighting under a broader alliance to prevent the splitting of secular votes.

“How can we be forced to quit our sitting seats just to please the new ally who has no credibility and support base?”, asked an angry party parliamentarian who requested anonymity.

The parliamentarian and others like him question Kumar’s credibility after his bizarre move to switch sides at the political front, seemingly at the drop of a hat.

Kumar broke 17 years of friendship with the BJP when he walked out of the NDA in 2013. He did so to protest the promotion of Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, as NDA’s prime ministerial candidate.

One year later, during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Kumar contested the elections alone but could only win two out of 40 seats. After this debacle, he then quickly joined hands with once his bitter arch-rival RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, whom Kumar had called a “tainted” leader in 1994 when he formed his party.

This Kumar-Prasad alliance brought a massive change in the state political scene as they defeated the NDA in the 2015 Bihar state polls despite aggressive campaigning by Modi.

Soon after the Bihar success, Kumar launched campaigns across India and declared an intention to make the country free from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological fountainhead.

He also vowed never again to shake hands with the BJP, saying: “Mitti mein mil jayenge lekin BJP se haath nahin milayenge (I will prefer to be reduced to ashes, than join hands with the BJP)”.

Barely two years later, however, Kumar joined hands with the same Modi whose candidature had made him quit the BJP.

“Nitish Kumar has lost his credibility for frequently switching sides and the BJP is not going to have major political advantages from his friendship,” said political expert S Narayan.

“The people don’t trust him anymore since he is not following a particular line and has rather adopted the use-and-throw policy,” he commented.  Narayan further believes that Kumar’s poll strategist Prashant Kishor has also rejected a move to form a government with the BJP after winning elections in alliance with the RJD and the Congress parties.

An extremely low turnout at Modi’s recent election rally in Bihar’s Patna solidified the reservation and lack of trust people may have regarding this alliance.

The political rally held on March 6 in preparation for the general elections saw Modi and Kumar share the stage for the first time in a decade. Trains, buses and even SUVs were booked to ferry the public to the rally ground. Free food and water were also arranged in anticipation of a big crowd, but despite these arrangements, the public did not show much support or interest.

This rejection by the people of Bihar should worry the BJP.

“Ideally, he (Nitish Kumar) should have sought a fresh mandate (before forming his government with the BJP),” said Kishor, who is the second most powerful man in the JD(U) after chief minister Kumar, in a local media interview.

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