When the NDA chose Bihar Governor Ram Nath Kovind as its candidate, it seemed like it had presented a dilemma for chief minister Nitish Kumar. Even though the NDA government reportedly did not consult him before it appointed Kovind as Governor in August 2015, Nitish Kumar did not make an issue of it because the former chief of the BJP Dalit Cell is known to be a low-profile person who plays by the book.
The CM and the Governor, in fact, got along very well in the last two years, also because Kovind did not allow the BJP to use Raj Bhavan as an extension counter of the party. Nitish decided he will not oppose Kovind's candidature for the sake of opposing.
Two, it was a matter of pride for Nitish that the Governor of Bihar was now being elevated to the highest constitutional post of the land. This made it yet another instance when Nitish has not flinched from taking a position diametrically opposite to that of the other opposition parties. Demonetisation was another instance where Nitish Kumar sensed the public mood better and backed Modi's decision.
Three, this decision allowed Nitish to distance himself from Lalu Yadav, whose family with the latest charges of corruption and CBI and Income Tax raids, has become even more of a political albatross around the CM's neck.
Unlike Kovind, Meira Kumar's name has been doing the rounds for some time. The chances that she would be fielded in fact brightened after Kovind was fielded because by fighting symbolism with symbolism, the opposition knew it could retain the likes of Mayawati and Sharad Pawar on its side. And hope to make it difficult for Nitish by making it a fight between Bihar's Governor and Bihar's daughter.
The consummate politician that he is, Nitish had anticipated this move by the Congress-led opposition. Mayawati chose to wait for the opposition's decision on its candidate, making it clear that if the opposition candidate was not a Dalit, she will vote for Kovind. Nitish on the contrary decided to be in a hurry and endorsed Kovind's candidature despite knowing Meira would be in the running.
Is this a political masterstroke by Nitish or political suicide?
If Nitish ditches the opposition at this juncture, it will be tough for his JD(U) to behave as if it is business as usual. While he could argue that even the likes of Naveen Patnaik, K Chandrasekhar Rao and Edappadi Palaniswami, who are not part of the NDA are backing Kovind, Nitish cannot wish away his stature as a leading light of the anti-NDA brigade.
Helping Kovind find a bigger house in Rashtrapati Bhavan will then most likely mean Nitish's own citadel in Patna could come crashing down. Plan B could then mean Nitish walking back into the NDA, replacing the RJD + Congress power plug with the BJP. It will be a homecoming of sorts because it was when Modi was announced as the NDA's PM candidate for the 2014 elections, that Nitish broke ties with it.
How does Nitish gain from this? One possibility is that he has seen the writing on the wall and does not see the possibility of returning to power with a tainted Lalu by his side in 2020. Worse, the Mahagathbandhan could put up a poor show in 2019 Lok Sabha polls as well, if the corruption cases against Lalu and family gain traction.
Two, Nitish is unlikely to be projected as a combined opposition PM candidate to make it a Modi vs Nitish battle in 2019. He knows there are too many contenders aspiring to be David to take on Goliath.
Three, being on the right side of the Centre may get him financial goodies that could help him in implementing the development agenda in his land-locked state.
Like the Bihar CM, Lalu too is preparing for political life after Nitish. Except that he will not want to walk out immediately because that will mean another extended stint in the political wilderness. Not a good idea especially when he has central agencies on his family's heels. His enthusiasm for Meira Kumar's candidature is driven by his desire to be at the forefront of any opposition to the BJP. But more importantly, he is laying the groundwork for a voter base for his sons.
Lalu's politics has always revolved around caste and not development. Meira Kumar belongs to the Chamar (cobbler) caste who constitute 5 per cent of Bihar's population. With the Congress not much of a strength in Bihar, Lalu will hope to reap the benefits of backing Meira Kumar. This despite Meira Kumar being seen more like a five-star Dalit leader, unlike her father, the late Babu Jagjivan Ram, who was seen as a son of the soil.
The word from the Nitish camp is that he is not changing his mind and has decided to back the winning horse. In fact, he asks why has the opposition made a Dalit woman the sacrificial lamb, when it is obvious that Meira Kumar will lose. The Bihar CM believes the Presidential election does not have much recall value and an opportunity to make political capital. He asks how many people in India remember who ended up on the losing side to KR Narayanan in 1997, to APJ Abdul Kalam in 2002, to Prathiba Patil in 2007 and to Pranab Mukherjee in 2012.
In his question lies his answer to the opposition.
Last Updated 31, Mar 2018, 6:40 PM