In April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Bihar to mark the 100th year of completion of Mahatma Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha. All key National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) Bihar partners were in attendance — except one.
Union Minister and Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) chief Upendra Kushwaha was on his way to the function, but was stopped and allegedly manhandled near Hajipur by supporters of Aarakshan Virodhi Morcha.
Kushwaha had to return without attending the event, but he expected his absence would be noticed. That did not happen, and neither did condemnation of the attack.
Neither here nor there: Why RLSP chief Upendra Kushwaha’s future looks bleak in Bihar
Key figures like Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan were silent, even after senior RLSP leaders released statements condemning the attack. By that point, there were strong rumours suggesting Kushwaha’s discontent with the NDA, and he had taken steps to express it.
In January, when Nitish Kumar organised a human chain in support of ban on dowry and child marriage, Kushwaha did not attend it. Instead, he organised his own two weeks later. Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad Yadav — the principal opposition in the state— attended Kushwaha’s rally, triggering rumours of a split.
The split didn’t come, but Kushwaha’s problems with the NDA continued. It was, therefore, not surprising when in June, Kushwaha said Nitish Kumar cannot be trusted, though what did come as a surprise was his wish to become the next chief minister of Bihar.
According to experts, Kushwaha was indicted into the NDA after Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) exited the alliance before the 2014 general elections. After Kumar’s exit, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wanted a party and a leader to divide Kumar’s vote bank and bring in the Kurmi and Koeri votes, which is where Kushwaha entered.
The national elections saw Kushwaha winning three seats — Jahanabad, Karakat and Sitamarhi. In the assembly elections next year, when the Grand Alliance swept the state, Kushwaha won two — Harlakhi and Chenari. The former necessitated a bypoll in 2016 after Basant Kumar, who was elected in 2015, died and his son, Sudhanshu managed to retain the seat for RLSP.
Before Nitish Kumar’s return to the NDA fold, the BJP tried to keep Kushwaha and the RLSP happy. That is because Koeri, the caste that RLSP has an influence on, forms seven percent of the population, and could impact the way results swing. The BJP had even focused a lot of attention on Sitamarhi, a constituency affected badly during the earthquake in Bihar in 2015. With the return of Nitish Kumar, however, things changed, and for the worse — at least for Kushwaha.
Kushwaha and Kumar share an uncomfortable relationship. A part of the JD(U) before he formed his own party in 2013, Kushwaha was kept out of Kumar’s council of ministers in 2005 after he lost his Vidhan Sabha seat. In 2012, Kushwaha rebelled against Kumar when he voted in favour of the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail in Rajya Sabha, going against the JD(U) vote. Kushwaha was suspended from the party for his action, and a year later, he floated RLSP and teamed up with NDA for the 2014 elections.
Kumar’s return has complicated matters for the RLSP chief, since the seat-sharing arrangement doesn’t favour him. Bihar has 40 Lok Sabha seats, out of which the JD(U) is demanding at least 20 and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) demanding six, the rest being BJP’s share. In this scenario, the RLSP does not see itself placed anywhere within the seat-sharing equation. Even if the three parties shuffle within themselves for the seats, observers feel they will most likely boot out the RLSP.
Kushwaha could go with the Grand Alliance, but the latter realises that while the Kushwaha vote is not transferable, the Koeri vote could only add about 2 to 3 percent in Lok Sabha, as opposed to the assembly seats where the Koeri vote has some influence in about 20-25 seats.
Since Kushwaha does not have much bargaining power within the NDA, and cannot add much to the Opposition’s chances, it is difficult to predict the course that his party will take.