A night of high drama in provincial Indian politics

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Is Bihar politician Nitish Kumar principled or opportunistic? Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

India’s opposition looks to be in disarray after the man tipped by many to be its next prime ministerial candidate, Nitish Kumar, stepped down as chief minister of Bihar on Wednesday, dumped his scandal-tainted coalition partner, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party, and formed a new government with the support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Nitish, who took his oath as chief minister for the sixth time on Thursday, now must prove he can command a majority on the floor of the house on Friday. It is not going to be easy: the RJD claims support from many lawmakers belonging to his Janata Dal-U (JDU) party. JDU leader Sharad Yadav, who skipped Nitish’s oath-taking ceremony, is said to have met with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.

By stepping down on an apparent matter of principle, Nitish boosted his clean image as the “people’s” chief minister. His move also indicated corruption will be a headline issue in the 2019 national elections, but the opposition’s poll prospects look grim without a leader of his standing.

An eventful night

Political developments in Bihar moved swiftly on Wednesday. The story began to unfold in the evening and carried on until 4 am. Opposition parties were stumped by the speed with which the JDU and BJP moved in unison. It was almost as though the whole thing had been rehearsed.

Nitish resigned at 6:45  pm. The BJP held a legislative party meeting even before he had spoke to the media. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed him for choosing probity over power and, within minutes, the BJP extended its support to Nitish. By 9:30 pm, its lawmakers began to arrive at his home.

A letter was sent to Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi carrying the signatures of 131 lawmakers declaring their support for Nitish. By midnight, top JDU and BJP leaders arrived at the governor’s residence and, soon after, Tripathi invited Nitish to form a new government.

In stepping down, Nitish clearly spelled out the reasons for parting ways with the RJD. He cited the following:

A subsequent verbal attack on Nitish from Lalu clearly came from anger and frustration at his son not being allowed to complete his term as deputy chief minister. He even claimed Nitish had been accused in a murder case and that this was, in fact, the root cause of his “resignation drama.”

Lalu then went on to play the victim card. He said Nitish had murdered democracy by not giving the RJD, which has the highest number of seats (80) in the assembly, the chance to fulfill its mandate. Tejashwi parroted his father’s words when he marched with RJD workers to Raj Bhavan and met with the governor at 2:30 am.

BJP the clear winner

In Nitish’s favor, there are good relations between him and the BJP’s Sushil Modi, who took his oath as deputy chief minister. Their first professed priority will be clean and decisive rule.

The JDU and BJP are preparing for a honeymoon, but Nitish is shrewd and ambitious enough to realize it may not last for very long. And while the opposition round on Nitish for being selfish and opportunistic, the BJP has emerged as the only likely victor in this political drama.

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