When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) conceded to an agreement to contest on an equal number of seats in Bihar in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with the Janata Dal (United), there were murmurs of discontent within the party, for it was felt that the BJP was the natural senior partner in the alliance.
In the polls, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 39 of the 40 seats, with BJP winning 17 seats, JD(U) winning 16 of the 17 seats it contested, and the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) winning all the six seats it contested.
With the Lok Sabha result quite clearly a mandate in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and with the parliamentary wins translating into leads in over 200 of the 243 assembly seats, voices within the BJP state unit asking the party to go it alone grew.
But the party leadership, at the top, was clear that it wanted to sustain the partnership with chief minister Nitish Kumar.
Many were perplexed at the decision.
But within the BJP, party leaders offered three reasons. The first was the experience of 2015 — in Bihar's triangular politics with BJP, JD(U), and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), whichever formation has two of the three parties has an edge, and BJP did not want to take any step that could have led to a repeat of the last election.
The second was that given Bihar's complex social set up, BJP leaders felt that Nitish Kumar still commanded the support of his own core base of extremely backward classes, a constituency the BJP is also assiduously cultivating, and didn't want to antagonise.
And finally, party leaders privately said that PM Narendra Modi, despite differences in the past, had a good working relationship with CM Nitish Kumar.
At the same time, the BJP — as an aggressive political force committed to expanding its space — was keen to not just make its presence felt but emerge as the key pole of politics in Bihar, a state where political success has eluded it. It is the only state where it has not had a CM of its own.
It also began getting feedback from the ground that there was anti-incumbency against the CM. And while it had already committed to supporting Nitish Kumar as CM, it was clear that this time around, the BJP needed to have the numbers to dictate terms.
It is this ambition which led to a political experiment, the origins and contours of which still remain shrouded in mystery. The LJP decided to contest elections separately in the state, challenging Nitish Kumar and putting up candidates against JD(U) — but the fact that it was still a part of the NDA at the Centre, the presence of many former BJP leaders in the LJP's candidate list, and PM Modi's silence on LJP (even though he firmly backed Kumar's leadership of the NDA during all his rallies) prompted speculation that BJP had propped up, or not done enough to stop, the LJP in order to cut the JD(U) to size.
While BJP leaders said this would help fragment the anti-incumbency vote to NDA's advantage, others felt it was solely aimed to benefit the BJP. As an opposition leader in the state put it, "The sense here is that BJP is a part of three alliances — a formal alliance with JD(U), an informal alliance with LJP, and an invisible alliance with the Asaduddin Owaisi-Upendra Kushwaha-Mayawati formation."
Whether the BJP was indeed engaged in this complex game is hard to tell and even harder to verify. But there appears to have been a realisation that a message needed to go out to the cadre that they must fully mobilise behind the NDA in the second and third phases of the elections.
Whether this was based on feedback that the LJP's presence had benefited the RJD in the first phase or whether or it was because Tejashwi Yadav's challenge needed a more cohesive approach or whether this was the strategy all along is once again in the realm of speculation, but the eventual outcome should leave BJP with a half-smile.
At the end of the election, it has emerged as the senior partner in the NDA and the alliance has returned to power — but with a depleted Nitish Kumar who will have to take BJP agenda and demands more seriously.
The mandate also reflects clearly the popularity of PM Modi, for all accounts suggest that he pulled up the NDA and Kumar needed his presence to boost his numbers. At the same time, the perception of the trust deficit between BJP and JD(U) will generate complications in the running of the government and power-sharing.
The BJP has achieved its goal of becoming the dominant pole in NDA in Bihar — but this has come at a cost of what may have been an easier victory for the NDA, which, late on Tuesday night, finally, just made it past the majority mark.