With around 40% of the votes counted, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has maintained its lead over the opposition grand alliance in Bihar, indicating that the BJP-JDU combine is likely to retain the people’s mandate in the state of Bihar.
However, even as the numbers are likely to lift the spirits in the saffron camp, the prospect of a Maharashtra-like stalemate evolving in the state are also getting stronger by the hour.
The key reason for this is the steep loss sustained by Janata Dal United, the party that is currently at the ‘head’ of the alliance in the state, and the sharp gains seen in the fortunes of the BJP, the erstwhile junior partner.
In the outgoing assembly, the JDU had 71 seats, while the BJP had 53 seats.
However, with around 40% votes counted, the JDU’s tally has fallen by 22, while that of the BJP has risen by 22.
Compared to its current strength of 71 MLAs in the outgoing assembly, Nitish Kumar’s party is leading in only 48 seats, while the BJP is leading in 73 seats.
This has already led to speculation that there may be demands for the JDU to ‘voluntarily’ give up its claim over the chief minister’s post in favor of its alliance partner BJP.
However, both BJP and JDU spokespersons have denied any such likelihood for now.
Commenting on the electoral trends, state JDU leader Rajiv Ranjan pointed to BJP leader Amit Shah’s pre-election statement that even if JDU gets fewer seats that the BJP, it will be allowed to keep the chief minister’s post. “Amit Shah has clarified this before.. There’s no question that Nitish Kumar should be the CM,” he said.
This was echoed by BJP leader Ravindra Kishore Sinha. “We have been categorical that whatever happens, Nitish will be the chief minister,” he said.
The primary reason for the central leadership’s position on the issue seems to be BJP’s bitter experience in Maharashtra last year. After state elections in 2019, partner Shiv Sena grew uncomfortable after BJP — formerly the junior partner in the alliance — clearly outperformed it by winning 105 seats against Shiv Sena’s 56.
Given the steadily increasing seat-share of BJP within the alliance, Shiv Sena started suspecting that the alliance was detrimental to its long-term prospects, and its partner would ‘finish it off’ if it continued in the NDA.
Smelling the rift, rival Congress-NCP alliance offered Shiv Sena the chief minister’s post, which convinced BJP’s oldest ally to ditch the saffron alliance. The government so formed has since confounded its critics by defying predictions of its quick demise due to the ‘opportunistic’ nature of the alliance.
Shiv Sena has not been the only alliance partner to feel suffocated under BJP’s embrace.
Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh, one of the oldest allies of the BJP, too abandoned its alliance with the BJP in 2018 after suspecting the party of trying to go behind its back to finish it off as well.
Akali Dal, also a long-time ally of the BJP, too left the alliance this year over similar concerns, though the ostensible reason given were changes introduced by the central government to the country’s agricultural policy.
With the exit of these three regional parties, the only regional party of any size left in the NDA has been Nitish Kumar’s JDU.
Now, with the sharp swing in the fortunes of the JDU in the Bihar election pushing BJP up as the ‘big brother’ in the alliance, JDU too is likely to face similar existential fears.
However, there is a key difference in the situation evolving in Bihar, compared to that in Maharashtra. Here, the possibility of the opposition alliance offering the chief minister’s position to JDU to form an alternative government is ‘less than zero’ because of the bitter history between JDU and the opposition alliance.
JDU was, in fact, fought as part of the opposition alliance in the 2015 state elections and led the government till 2017. However, it left the alliance to join hands with rival BJP after political and policy differences cropped up with local RJD leadership, and left the RJD and the Congress feeling betrayed.
As such, there’s practically zero possibility of either the RJD or the Congress welcoming Nitish Kumar back into the fold, no matter how acrimonious the squabbling between the local leaders of the BJP and the JDU get in the coming days.
The only other possibility is that of the JDU lending some kind of ‘outside support’ to the RJD-Congress alliance purely to spite the BJP. That possibility, nevertheless, remains a distant one right now, though not one that can be entirely ruled out.
There is also the possibility that the central leadership of the BJP will bear upon the local leaders to put up with Nitish Kumar as the chief minister for another five years.
The local leadership of the BJP, however, are likely to put up a good fight against such a proposal, given that the chances of the NDA winning another mandate in 2025 are also virtually zero due to pent up anti-incumbency feelings. They are likely to point out that the only way for the NDA to retain power in 2025 would be to offer a better administration than what Nitish Kumar is able to provide.