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Nitish backs Modi's note ban. But can he carry his allies together?

N Kumar | Updated on: 28 November 2016, 18:38 IST

Opposition parties across the political spectrum hit the streets on 28 November against the note ban. While parties such as Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) organised mass protests in Ranchi and other cities, the situation was slightly different in the neighbouring Bihar.

Political temperature rises

Going against alliance partners, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi's demonetisation move. So far, the JD(U) has managed to avoid direct confrontation on this issue with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). However, smaller ally Congress has taken an aggressive stand.

Also read - Before Modi banned Rs 500, Rs 1000 notes BJP was busy investing in real estate

"We had followed the high command's orders to enter into an alliance with Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav. We will walk away from the grand alliance within seconds if the top leadership wants us to do so," stated senior Congress leader Ashok Chaudhary, when asked why the Chief Minister differed with his party's views on the note ban.

Chaudhary, who's a season politician - he is party's state chief and a minister in the Nitish Kumar government - could have chosen to answer the question differently.

We will walk away from the alliance within seconds if the top leadership wants us to do so: Congress

But his not-so-veiled threat has raised political temperatures in Patna.

A day after this statement, Chaudhary clarified that there was no threat to the ruling alliance's unity and there was an attempt to misinterpret his words.

Apparently, the damage control exercise did not cut much ice with Lalu Yadav's party as the Deputy CM Tejaswi Yadav treated Chaudhary's remarks with disdain. "The statements given by the Congress leaders hardly make any difference. I don't consider them worthy of any attention," he stated.

The response of JD(U) leaders was more guarded. Senior party leader KC Tyagi cautioned against questioning the unity of the grand alliance. "It is not necessary for allies to agree on all the issues. The only purpose of the grand alliance was the welfare of the people of Bihar and to keep BJP out of power," Tyagi said.

A 'masterstroke'?

The BJP, on the other hand, is portraying these conflicting statements as a symptom of the beginning of the end of the grand alliance. There are already speculations in public discourse whether Nitish Kumar was getting cosier to Modi as part of some strategy.

The grapevine is slightly more than a conjecture considering that the Bihar chief minister has not only supported the note ban but also praised Modi on several occasions in the recent past. In fact, senior JD(U) leader and Rajya Sabha MP Harivansh has written a long article hailing Modi's demonetisation move as a "masterstroke."

Trading barbs

Such rumours have also gained ground in the wake of recent fissures in the grand alliance, most notably, the differences over the release of Siwan strongman Shahabuddin.

While politicians spewed venom against Nitish Kumar, the RJD supremo chose to remain silent. Lalu's conspicuous silence has been heard in political quarters as tacit approval of anti-Nitish rhetoric of several of his lieutenants.

Lalu's silence has been heard in political quarters as tacit approval of anti-Nitish rhetoric

JD(U)'s leaders have responded in kind to RJD's vitriol. Even Nitish Kumar once had to remind everyone that "nobody should have a misconception that the government is surviving on somebody else's mercy. It need not be told whose face value and work found favour with the electorate."

Many analysts believed this was jarring and not normal for an alliance that has just completed the first year in power. Lalu's continued silence ended the matter there.

The widening rift

However, the friction between the two parties still lurks below the surface even though the RJD and JD(U) have been bitterly opposed to each other for decades.

Nitish Kumar's attempts to make himself look larger than the alliance and portray the image of a leader who is beyond the compulsions of a coalition has only widened the rift with RJD.

A fractured alliance

But, this time it is the Congress that seems to have sounded the bugle of revolt. Is it the symptom that the grand alliance is eventually crumbling under its own weight.

A noted political analyst, who is also considered close to the chief minister, says on the condition of anonymity, "The grand alliance is not going to fall apart in the near future as its constituents have no other option. Although, Nitish can always go back to the NDA. He has the knack of turning the circumstances to his favour."

"The people accepted him when he deserted the ultra-left CPI (ML) overnight to ally with the rightist BJP. He found mass support even when he joined forces with his archrival Lalu. The BJP will not mind joining hands with him again. It is Lalu and the Congress who cannot afford the break-up of the alliance. While the RJD chief needs the government to prepare the political ground for his coming generations, the Congress hopes to resuscitate itself from the death-bed through the coalition," he says.

"Both the BJP and Nitish Kumar are benefitting from the shower of praises bestowed on Modi by the Bihar chief minister," adds the analyst.

A shifting dynamic

The chief minister is probably aware of the compulsions of his coalition partners. This is why he is not shy of playing on the front foot, even in the national political arena. He is maintaining a fine distance from the RJD while running the government by its support at the same time.

There are also rumours that the prime minister might also choose to replicate the Nitish model of liquor prohibition in some of the BJP-ruled states. This will only add to the political weight of the Bihar chief minister.

The political dynamics in Bihar might be slowly shifting, but the ruling alliance is going to remain intact on the surface. At least, as long as Nitish Kumar gets a free hand in implementing his agenda.

Edited by Aleesha Matharu

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First published: 28 November 2016, 18:38 IST