In a coalition where the lead party has an overwhelming majority, junior stakeholders are loath to subsuming their entity to the bigger partner. Of all the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) constituents, the Janata Dal (United) has made its point early on, and rightly so.
Its president and Bihar chief minister Ni ti sh Kumar has sound reasons to indicate that he cannot be trifled with or taken for granted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Having secured and encashed a respectable seat-sharing agreement with the BJP in the just-concluded Lok Sabha elections, he is gearing up for next year’s assembly elections, which will be crucial for his future and that of his party’s.
Assembly polls are due also in Maharashtra, where the Shiv Sena hasn’t fussed about getting only one ministry in the Union cabinet. Kumar’s stand is noteworthy for this reason, and for its possible repeat value for Uddhav Thackeray who wasn’t an easy ally to handle in Narendra Modi’s first term as Prime Minister. The Sena chief has mellowed as he sees electoral rewards in keeping the alliance that paid rich dividends in the parliamentary elections.
It was on the principle of parity that the JD (U) refused the single Cabinet position the BJP offered to it at the Centre. Kumar reportedly found unacceptable the formula that equated him with NDA partners that had a smaller legislative presence in the 17th Lok Sabha — be it the Lok Janshakti Party of Ram Vilash Paswan or Ramdas Athawale’s Republican Party of India, which has no seat in the Lower House.
In the new House, the JD (U) will have 16 members.
To be fair, Kumar shared power with the BJP on the basis of proportional representation in Bihar after returning to the NDA in 2017.
With 55 legislators in the 243member House, he gave the BJP 14 ministerial slots, including that of deputy chief minister to Sushil Modi. The 73-member JD (U) kept 19 berths, including the chief minister’s.
In the lead-up to the assembly polls, Kumar appears to be keen to deal on equal terms with the BJP regardless of the latter’s renewed and improved mandate at the Centre. The JD (U)-centric expansion he carried out in his council of ministers in Bihar after the Lok Sabha results was a signal that his junior ally in the state could not have missed from its lofty perch at the Centre.
The emerging contours of the JD (U)’s ties with the BJP will get clearer with the former’s stance on the legislative agenda and debates in the 17th Lok Sabha, whose first session begins on Monday.
Having reaffirmed support for the Modi regime, Nitish isn’t about to sign on dotted lines on policy issues. For instance, his stand on the BJP’s renewed push to make instant triple talaq a punishable offence is guided by the need for consultation and consensus-building on matters falling in the broader rubric of the uniform civil code.
On the criminalisation of instant divorce, the JD (U) leader is sticking to what he told the Law Commission in 2017. He had averred in a written reply to the panel that the placement of Article 44 in the Directive Principles of State Policy brought home the imperative of consensus in such endeavours.
There are variances also between the two parties on Articles 370 and 35A, relating to the special status of Jammu & Kashmir that the BJP is committed to changing.
Likewise, Kumar’s demand for scrapping the 100-odd centrally sponsored schemes — to afford room for policymaking to states in consonance with local needs — promotes cooperative federalism against unitary governance, which is characteristic of singleparty majority regimes. In some ways, it is a reminder to the PM of his promise of “sabka sath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas…”