Nitish Kumar was back as Bihar chief minister for a record seventh time on Monday, heading a 14-strong council of ministers whose two BJP members were tipped to become his deputies reflecting the changing power dynamics in the state. Kumar was administered the oath of office by Governor Fagu Chauhan at a simple ceremony at Raj Bhavan which was attended, among others, by Union Home Minister Amit Shah and BJP national president J P Nadda, but boycotted by the opposition ‘Mahagathbandhan’, a grand alliance of five parties led by the RJD.
The swearing-in of the 69-year-old leader marked the start of a tenure when his JD(U) stands enfeebled by an electoral setback and the BJP has emerged way too stronger than its regional ally for the first time. The opposition RJD, which has emerged as the single largest party in the 243-strong assembly, announced its “boycott of the installation of a puppet government” despite its leader Tejashwi Yadav receiving the invitation. The party reiterated its allegation that votes were tilted in favour of the NDA with the help of pliant officials posted in assembly segments where the contest was close.
The BJP appeared to have extracted its pound of flesh, walking away with seven berths in the council of ministers, two more than the JD(U), and also keeping for itself the post of the Speaker of the assembly which has remained with the chief minister’s party in the last decade and a half. “Congratulations to @NitishKumar Ji on taking oath as Bihar’s CM. I also congratulate all those who took oath as Ministers in the Bihar Government. The NDA family will work together for the progress of Bihar. I assure all possible support from the Centre for the welfare of Bihar,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.
The BJP has dropped as Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, a veteran leader who later on came to be seen as an alter ego of Kumar, much to the resentment of party hardliners. While the fate of Modi, who is a member of the state legislative council, remains unclear, the party has handpicked two of its low profile MLAs Tar Kishore Prasad and Renu Devi for the Deputy CM’s post.
Both took oath as ministers and sat on the dais alongside Kumar. Since deputy chief minister is not a constitutional post, their elevation will come into effect with a cabinet resolution and subsequent gazette notification. Kumar, on his part, sought to steer clear of the speculations around his former deputy and replied curtly when approached with queries by journalists, saying “This is the BJP’s decision. You should pose your questions to the BJP leadership”.
A section in the media sought to highlight Modi’s absence at the BJP headquarters here when Shah visited the premises and got a rousing welcome by party cadre exulting over its impressive performance in the assembly polls. The former deputy chief minister, though, had received Shah and Nadda at the airport and later turned up at the swearing-in ceremony besides coming out with a flurry of tweets congratulating his former boss and other newly inducted ministers.
However, the generational shift in the Bihar BJP, where leaders like Union MoS for Home Nityanand Rai are emerging as the new power centres, was evident. Nand Kishore Yadav and Prem Kumar, both multiple term MLAs from their respective constituencies who always held ministerial berths whenever the BJP has been in power, did not make it this time.
However, Nand Kishore Yadav is all set to become the new Speaker, informed sources in the BJP said. The 14 ministers sworn in today seven from BJP, five from JD(U) and one each from HAM and VIP reflect the “social engineering” that has been the cornerstone of the saffron party-led alliance’s strategy for expansion in the Hindi heartland.
While four of them belong to the upper castes, the traditional support base of the BJP, three are Dalits and the remaining from the often disorganised but numerically powerful sections of the other backward classes (OBC) and extremely backward classes (EBC). Notably, two ministers Bijendra Prasad Yadav (JDU) and Ram Surat Rai (BJP) belong to the Yadav caste, traditionally the supporters of the RJD whom the BJP has been aggressively trying to wean away from Lalu Prasad’s party.
Besides Renu Devi, who belongs to the EBC group Nonia, Sheela Kumari Mandal, an OBC from the JD(U) is the other woman minister who made a successful electoral debut in the recently held polls. The Dalits faces include Ashok Choudhary, who held a ministerial portfolio in the previous government and is the JD(U)’s state working president, Santosh Kumar Suman, whose father Jitan Ram Manjhi is a former chief minister and HAM president, and Ram Prit Paswan, a senior BJP leader from Madhubani in north Bihar.
No Muslim figured among the ministers, an omission which may provide the opposition with some cannon fodder to train guns at Nitish Kumar whom it has often accused of capitulating before the BJP in his quest for power. From the Vikassheel Insaan Party, the inductee is its founding chief Mukesh Sahni who plunged into politics a couple of years ago after giving up a career as a set designer in Bollywood. Sahni’s party has won four seats though he made the cut despite having lost.
The RJD-led ‘Mahagathbandhan’ boycotted the ceremony claiming the public mandate in the elections was against the NDA but it was altered by “fraud”. “The RJD boycotts oath-taking ceremony of this puppet government. The mandate is for a change, and against the (ruling) NDA. The people’s verdict has been changed by the ruler’s order,” the RJD alleged in a tweet.
Other members of the opposition alliance include the Congress, CPI, CPI-M and CPI-ML. “Best wishes to Shri Nitish Kumarji on his nomination as the chief minister. I hope he will accord priority to Bihar’s aspirations over his personal lust for the chair,” RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav tweeted.
The NDA won 125 seats in the 243-member assembly against 110 clinched by the opposition Grand Alliance to pave the way for a fourth successive term for Kumar in office but with diminished clout following a debilitating slide in the number of JD(U) lawmakers that came down to 43 from 71 in 2015. The drastic fall in the number of JD(U) MLAs, as was expected, saw the BJP, which hitherto played a second fiddle to Kumar, drive a hard bargain and walk away with a larger share in the ministerial pie, and looks set to pocket the Speaker’s chair as well.