Known as a political fox who normally does not misread a political situation, Nitish Kumar is not reacting to the demand that he should kick himself upstairs to the centre, so that Bihar could get its BJP chief minister. The longest serving chief minister of the state knows aggressive BJP may exert pressure in this regard ahead of assembly elections in the winter of 2020.
In 2013, he had opposed Narendra Modi's selection as the prime ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and had moved out of the front. Yet he had trumped Modi by winning the 2015 elections in the company of Lalu Prasad and Congress, but was back in the NDA two years later to lead the alliance of his Janata Dal (United) - JD(U) - and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) again. Embracing Modi, this alliance had swept the recent Lok Sabha elections in Bihar on the back of the BJP wave, but that has only whetted the appetite of the state unit of the right-wing party.
As the Bihar elections are only in November 2020, the aggression shown by some local BJP leaders is part of the shadow boxing to fulfill the long-term agenda of Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah to have BJP chief ministers in more states.
The BJP, which enjoys the support of upper castes in Bihar, is also being asked by its core supporters why the state has not had a chief minister from such communities since Jagannath Mishra, whose term ended in 1990. The state had been ruled by RJD leaders Lalu and his wife Rabri Devi from 1990 to 2005, and subsequently by Nitish, barring a brief spell by his party member Jitan Ram Majhi.
Only BJP's Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, who is seen as very close to Nitish, has said that the next election would be fought by the NDA under the latter's leadership. Sushil, who also belongs to backward caste, has rubbished the demand that Nitish should move to the centre, and allow a BJP chief minister to take charge of the state.
Some in the BJP camp reason the second largest state in the Hindi belt is not having a BJP chief minister, despite overwhelming support for Narendra Modi in successive Lok Sabha elections. They argue that the BJP is not the same party as it was a decade ago, when it had to give lead position to regional parties so that the former could grow in states where it was weaker. The BJP has been playing second fiddle to Akali Dal in Punjab since the Jana Sangh days. But after Modi came to power, the BJP dumped Shiv Sena - its senior partner in Maharashtra for three decades, and fought the elections on its own steam. It even emerged as the single largest party and the Sena had to be the junior partner, surrendering the chief ministership. Even now Sena has plans to project Aditya Thackeray, grandson of party founder Balasaheb Thackeray, but Amit Shah is firm that the present CM Devendra Fadnavis would be the leader, with or without seat adjustment.
Amit Shah had similarly abandoned the Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana in five years, and BJP had managed to attain a simple majority in the state for the first time. Thus the demands in Bihar could grow if the party were to triumph in the already-announced four assembly elections of Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkand and Delhi, which come a year before the elections in the eastern state.
There will be demands that more than half the seats should be contested by the BJP in a bid to minimise JD(U)'s strength. But unlike Shiv Sena, which cannot forge an alliance with the opposition parties in Maharashtra, Nitish can do it in Bihar, as he showed in 2015. The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress, even knowing the mercurial ways of Nitish, would cohabit with him, even knowing there can be no long-term guarantee about the commitments of the JD(U) supremo.
In Bihar, Nitish's supporters have asserted his inevitability as the leader of the NDA by apparently answering anti-Nitish posters put up in the name of RJD, but obviously meant at silencing BJP men who want the CM out of Patna. In Punjab, the BJP does not have a robust cadre or leadership, which can challenge the political dominance of the Akali Dal, especially as the NDA is faced with a strong Congress chief minister in Amarinder Singh, who is the state's most popular politician. The poster and statement wars in Patna indicate that BJP's allies - from Bihar to Tamil Nadu - have to be careful about the ambitions of the big brother.