NEW DELHI: Bihar’s Flip Flop Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, seeking to justify his constant political shifts with a projected obsession with ‘clean image’, is back with the Bharatiya Janata Party as was expected ever since he took a position, away from the rest of the Opposition, on the reported ‘surgical strike’ against Pakistan.

Kumar who has never had a problem with the BJP on issues of communalism since his early Janata Dal days, shifted to the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress party to form the government in Bihar last year not on grounds of principled politics---he gave that up when he remained with the BJP during the Gujarat violence in 2002---but because he saw the possibility of leading an Opposition conglomerate to power in 2019 as the Prime Minister aspirant. But it became apparent to Kumar that this path was not without thorns, with the Congress party and the Left unwilling to support him over the other contenders for the post that included almost all other regional parties leaders---Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Yadav, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati. At least at this stage.

Kumar has now retained the Chief Ministership with the BJP, ignoring the huge mandate the people of Bihar had given to the Mahagathbandhan led by him on the issue of communalism and economic justice in 2015. He has realised that the post of PM is now a pipe dream, he is not getting younger, and would prefer a smooth journey and not the constant pinpricks Lalu Yadav is subjecting him to. In the Janata Dal both these leaders rarely saw eye to eye, and matters did not get better in 2015 when RJD secured more seats (80) than the Janata Dal(U) (71) in the elections, even though the mandate was for Kumar’s leadership. Needless to say Lalu Yadav made the most of this victory.

It is clear after speaking to a cross section of leaders from Bihar, that Kumar has been biting at the reins for a while now. More as in his perception the RJD, under Lalu Yadav’s incorrigible leadership, was consolidating the Yadav-Muslim vote again and growing in strength after having lost considerable political ground in the state pre-2015. Kumar does not have a specific vote bank, and has thus ensured an appeal based on good and clean administration that has worked for him over the years. “Nitish babu is a good CM, we are all with him” was the refrain during the Bihar Assembly polls that united all sections behind the JD(U) leader. Interestingly though, while the Congress gained little from the alliance, the RJD emerged a clear winner.

The winds of victory began to shift when Kumar, after a couple of visits to Delhi, realised he was not being given the importance he wanted by either the Congress party, the Left and more importantly the regional parties he had hoped to influence. Orissa’s Naveen Patnaik was not interested, and West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee was keen on realising her own ambitions. The Congress despite being in alliance was clearly unwilling to pitch for him, with Kumar being forced thus to limit himself to Bihar despite initial efforts to get on to a more national platform.

Never opposed to communalism and indifferent---as his silence has indicated---to the hate campaign by the BJP in different parts of India, Kumar who always had a better working relationship with the party unit in Bihar than with the more aggressive RJD, re-weighed his options. And decided to move back into the BJP fold, following a well laid out plan of successive steps. Significantly, he did not take his senior leaders into confidence, and KC Tyagi and Sharad Yadav kept assuring journalists that his support for the surgical strike was a one off issue, and that the JD(U) could not ever shift its position. Asked clearly by this reporter about Kumar’s bend towards the BJP at the time, Tyagi had said, “why do you all keep saying this. There is no question of Nitishji ever going back to the BJP, we have asked him and he has told us this clearly.”

Kumar started reaching out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was amongst the first to congratulate him after he resigned yesterday, in a day of high drama. And then returned to the chair of course, with BJP support. Minister Narendra Modi and their bonhomie became visible in official functions.

Demonetisation was the next indicator of the emerging relationship. And more definitive than the first, in that this was opposed by the entire Opposition with Kumar’s support raising eyebrows all across the opposition benches in Parliament. The party leaders fending reporters and MPs were clearly embarassed, but were again assured by Kumar that this was part of his ‘principled politics’ and he really believed that the measure would tackle corruption. There was not a word from him about the adverse impact it was having on the small businesses that had shut down, with the poorer sections directly impacted in the first instance.

The third indication was when Kumar stayed out of the UP elections, despite an initial move to lead the campaign against the BJP in the state. In fact both he and his earlier Janata Dal colleague, Mulayam Singh Yadav also said to have close links with the BJP, were missing from the campaign for different reasons of course.

And the final nail in the coffin---it remains to be seen whether it is of the Opposition or of the JD(U)---was driven in by Kumar when he jumped to support the BJP candidate for President despite being amongst the first to insist on a joint Opposition campaign for the post. In fact, after he supported President Ram Nath Kovind’s candidature without warning, a senior Congress leader said in confidence, “it seems that Nitishji was leading us along. He first became central to the decision to field an Opposition candidate, and then left us midway, disorganised.”

All through this there was rarely a word from Kumar against the hate campaign launched by now his new ally in government. In fact Tyagi even tried to attend the Not In My Name meeting at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, and left when he did not find himself on the stage. Sharad Yadav till three weeks ago was working hard to organise a major conclave on Kashmir, along with the Left and the Congress. He fell silent suddenly as clearly there was no encouragement from the Bihar leadership.

The question now is whether Kumar will succeed in whatever he is trying to achieve. He has got RJD and the Congress out of the government but will he be able to keep himself as a front runner in the longer run? Or is his ambition now so limited that he is quite willing to remain as the CM for the remaining years and perhaps as a Union Minister at the centre, if the BJP wins 2019 general elections?

The one certainty is that in the ensuing years the Janata Dal(U) will become a cipher, reduced to the level of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. In that the party will be at best a cipher, dependent on the aggressive and growing BJP that has shown scant respect for regional allies in its determined mission to occupy all political space in India. More so in the case of Kumar, who has no vote bank of his own, and is dependent on a clean image to survive. PM Narendra Modi is a bigger contender for this space than anyone that Kumar might have so far seen, and it can be said categorically at this stage that this is one card that will not light up with neon lights for him, as the BJP moves into the one state it wanted almost as desperately as UP.

Kumar has lost much of his verve, and with this latest flip flop the respect on both sides. The BJP/RSS sees him as necessary till 2019 elections, but does not trust him. He is not one of their own. The Opposition had great respect for him, many spoke of him as the possible next PM, but this has now eroded entirely. The voters too will be impacted accordingly, and over time the credibility Kumar enjoys in all sections will also be impacted. As corruption and clean image in Indian politics, and more so in Bihar politics, deliver so long as the voters perceive progress and that is never so for long.

The BJP of course has gained enormously, as now it has the second largest state after UP in its bag. It is in power also in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand and Haryana with the north of India virtually tied up, and providing an excellent backdrop for the race into the Lok Sabha polls. In the process Kumar has helped the BJP isolate leaders like Mamata Banerjee who is the only Opposition leader---along with a quiet and rather benign Naveen Patnaik---still in power in North Indian states. Punjab is the only other exception with a clear five years still to go under the Congress party. Aam Aadmi in Delhi has been neutralised through hard actions by the Lt Governor whose office now controls the day to day functioning of the state government. sue.

Readers might like to recall that Kumar has had close links with the BJP always. He became CM of Bihar with the BJPs support despite holding it responsible for the demolition of the Babri mosque. He then continued sharing power with the BJP despite the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat. He was the Union Railway Minister at the time in the Vajpayee government. Vajpayee, in fact reminded then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi of Rajdharma and reports suggested that he even pressed for his removal in the BJP national executive.Ram Vilas Paswan quit the NDA then, although he is now back, silent and relatively secure. George Fernandes, who Kumar was very close to, went to Ahmedabad against Modi. But Nitish Kumar did not join any one of them, and maintained his counsel.

As he will continue to do so now. Perhaps even as a member of the BJP, as the relevance of the JD(U) is now over in Bihar politics.