'By naming Tejashwi as the next CM candidate, he has put us in a dilemma.'
'Who will lead us in 2025?'
'What will happen to the party after 2025?'
On a cold December 13 evening, when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar invited Mahagathbandhan MLAs for a meeting, most leaders had one question on their mind.
A day earlier in Nalanda, the Bihar CM had said he would take his deputy and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav 'even further', vaguely indicating a change.
However, they never got to ask for clarification.
At the meeting, Nitish announced the beginning of the end of his term as CM of Bihar.
'I am neither the prime ministerial candidate nor the CM candidate. My goal is to defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party. Tejashwi has to be encouraged,' said the Janata Dal-United) leader.
Probed further by journalists on whether Tejashwi would lead the Mahagathbandhan in the Bihar assembly election in 2025, Nitish patted the RJD leader's back, pushing him ahead, saying, 'Ekdum karega (absolutely, he will).
With this, the younger son of former CMs Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi is now Nitish's heir apparent.
The move surprises, given Nitish had earlier switched sides to stay in power. But those who understand the JD-U stalwart's politics indicated this was some time coming.
The results of the recent assembly by-polls, Nitish's national ambitions, and his advancing years may have played an important role in this decision.
Nitish will be 76 in 2025 when the assembly elections are due and will face a massive wall of anti-incumbency.
The recent loss of Mahagathbandhan candidates in two of the three assembly seats in the by-polls held in the past two months showed the JD-U's waning popularity among the Extremely Backward Classes, a subsection of the Other Backward Classes in Bihar.
Last month, by-elections were held in Mokama and Gopalganj. The Mokama poll was necessitated after sitting RJD MLA and strongman Anant Singh was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in an arms seizure case.
In Gopalganj, a by-election was held after BJP MLA Subhash Singh died following a protracted illness.
In Mokama, RJD candidate and Anant Singh's wife Neelam Devi scored an easy victory over the BJP's Sonam Devi.
The problem was Devi's victory margin -- less than 17,000 votes, whereas in 2020, her husband had won the seat by over 35,000 votes. It was clear the JD-U wasn't able to transfer its votes.
On the other hand, Subhash Singh's widow Kusum Devi won the Gopalganj seat with a slender margin of around 1,800 votes. In 2020, the BJP won the seat with a margin of almost 37,000 votes.
EBC voters chose the Bahujan Samajwadi Party's candidate Indira Yadav (who is married to Rabri Devi's brother Sadhu Yadav) over the RJD's Mohan Gupta who managed to get most Vaishya voters to his side.
Earlier this month, in another face-off in Kurhani in Muzaffarpur district, the JD-U's Manoj Kushwaha lost to the BJP's Kedar Gupta by almost 3,700 votes.
The victory is considered a boost to the morale of the BJP's rank and file, which defeated a seven-party alliance.
A deeper analysis of the results shocked JD-U leaders.
"It seems we failed to get support from our traditional vote base in Kurhani. Our workers told us that (Manoj) Kushwaha was not very accessible, and this drove our voters away. However, this doesn't mean Nitish's popularity has gone down," says JD-U MP Bashistha Narain Singh.
While prohibition angered the Pasi community in the state, its shoddy implementation emerged as a major cause of resentment among women voters.
The state government officials refuse to accept deaths due to the consumption of spurious alcohol. Last week, there were multiple fatalities in a hooch tragedy in Saran.
The job crisis has also dented Nitish's image among young voters. While his performance in power infrastructure and road construction has been exemplary, the same cannot be said about job creation.
The state has an unemployment rate of 17 per cent, nearly double the national average of 8.7 per cent.
Bihar ranks fourth in unemployment, after Haryana, Rajasthan, and Jammu & Kashmir.
Nitish's announcement has triggered speculation about a JDU-RJD combine. While RJD leaders stay mum, many in the JD-U are baffled.
"It's pure speculation. There have been no such talks. Nitish will lead the party in the 2025 election, while the Grand Alliance will be led by Tejashwi," says Bihar's Water Resources Minister Sanjay Jha.
Upendra Kushwaha, head of the JD-U's parliamentary board, has openly stated that an JD-U-RJD merger will be suicidal for the party.
'People must ask how it's possible. A merger will be suicidal. There will be no merger,' Kushwaha told reporters.
JD-U leaders admit the announcement has put them in a spot.
"For the past 20 years, we worked hard to strengthen Nitish's position. By naming Tejashwi as the next CM candidate, he has put us in a dilemma. Who will lead us in 2025? What will happen to the party after 2025?" asks one JD-U leader.
"The 2025 assembly poll is still some time away. Before that, the 2024 general elections are due. Nitish must have thought of something. He is a master tactician. He will announce his plans in days to come," says Jha when asked about the JD-U's future after 2025.
"Only Nitish knows what he is going to do. He had a long time to mentor his successor within the party, but didn't do it. Actions speak louder than words," says another JD-U leader.
While Nitish rejects any national ambitions, his colleagues in the party think otherwise.
'Send Nitish to Delhi for six months and the BJP will be finished,' party General Secretary K C Tyagi said at a JD-U meeting in Patna.
'He has nothing to fear from the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate or the income-tax department. He is best suited to lead the Opposition in 2024,' Tyagi added.
One senior leader pointed out the the JD-U's falling vote share in the assembly elections.
"In the 2010 elections, at the height of Nitish's power, the JD-U got almost 23 per cent votes, whereas it fell to nearly 17 per cent in the 2015 polls. Five years later, the JD-U could only get 15 per cent of the votes. Nitish sees the writing on the wall," this JD-U leader says.
"It can be an emotional appeal to win back votes in the 2024 elections. He has done it earlier and was successful," he adds, pointing to Nitish's emotional appeal to voters in the last leg of the 2020 assembly polls.
'This is my last election. Ant bhala toh sab bhala (All's well that ends well),' said an emotional Nitish on November 5, 2020, while addressing an election rally in Purnia.
The National Democratic Alliance went on to win a majority of the seats in the Kosi region, which ultimately gave the NDA a narrow edge over the Mahagathbandan in 2020.
Analysts point out this doesn't mean Nitish will not be a 'force disruptor' after 2024.
"The JD-U is still a force to reckon with. Nitish on either side can still make a big difference. To call him a spent force will be an error in judgement," says economist N K Choudhary.
Meanwhile, the BJP has been able to carve out a small base among backward voters. However, the Kurhani and Gopalganj by-poll results show that the party is losing traction among its traditional Bhumihar and Baniya voters.
The party has not been able to project a leader capable of taking on Tejaswi, further hurting its chances.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com