New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi scored a major political victory on Thursday when the chief minister of a populous northern state joined forces with his ruling party, further weakening the field of credible opposition candidates.
Nitish Kumar, once seen as a potential challenger in the 2019 general election, was sworn in as chief minister a day after quitting – ostensibly over a row with his coalition ally – and will govern with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The sudden political realignment in Bihar, home to more than 100 million people, means that Modi’s party now rules – either alone or in coalition – in 17 of 29 states, representing close to two thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people.
Modi has led his party to a string of state election wins since he stormed to power in 2014, expanding the BJP’s base across the northern heartlands and into the remote northeast, and cementing his claim to a second term.
What had been broken, he said, was not merely an alliance but an attempt at building a credible counter-narrative to Modi’s “stunning grab on the national imagination” after 2014. Bihar had been a rare blot on Modi’s electoral record, after a three-party alliance led by Kumar handed the BJP a heavy defeat in late 2015.
Kumar’s collapsed coalition, which included the once-mighty Congress party, held out the possibility that opposition leaders could form some sort of national bloc to fight Modi. His return to the fold, having served as a minister in the last BJP-led government, underscores Modi’s political dominance and tactical acumen in either defeating or co-opting his rivals.
Kumar’s abrupt resignation on Wednesday followed a row with his coalition partner, Lalu Prasad Yadav, a charismatic and colourful former chief minister of Bihar who has previously been jailed for corruption. The resignation centred on a disagreement around the role of Yadav’s son as a regional minister, but some analysts said Kumar, 66, clearly saw a better political future by cutting his losses and aligning himself with Modi.