Indian opposition leader Nitish Kumar makes dramatic switch to ruling BJP

Veteran politician reappointed chief minister of Bihar state with support of BJP

Nitish Kumar is chief minister of Bihar, one of the most important states in India, with 40 of Parliament's 543 seats. AP
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Indian opposition politician Nitish Kumar has formed an alliance with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to be appointed chief minister of the state of Bihar for the ninth time, in a further blow to the opposition before national elections are held this year.

Mr Kumar, 72, has been chief minister of Bihar, an important electoral state with a population of 131 million, since 2000 and is regarded as one of the most important politicians in the country.

He leads the regional Janata Dal (United) party and has governed the state through a variety of coalitions, switching between support for opposition parties and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP.

Mr Kumar previously formed a government with Rashtriya Janata Dal and Indian National Congress in 2020. But despite recently vowing "he'd rather die" than ally with the BJP, with which he has joined forces before, he resigned as chief minister on Sunday to dissolve his coalition with the RJD and INC.

By Sunday evening, he had been reappointed as chief minister and formed the regional government with the support of the BJP.

“The situation with the alliance was not working," Mr Kumar said. "The new Grand Alliance that we created [in August 2022] is not in a good condition, the situation is not looking good."

Although it is not the first time the veteran Mr Kumar has allied with the country's ruling party – he was part of a BJP-led coalition in 2022 – his latest move has been regarded as a blow for the opposition in a crucial election year.

India is set to hold national elections in April and May. The opposition is behind in the polls and faces an uphill challenge to prevent Mr Modi from winning another five-year term.

Bihar is one of the most important states, with 40 of the Indian Parliament's 543 seats.

Mr Kumar has been one of the leading figures in the alliance of 26 opposition political parties formed under the banner "INDIA" last year. His decision to form a state government with BJP support presents a further challenge to INDIA, which is led by the main opposition party, the INC.

Congress MP Jairam Ramesh said Mr Kumar was giving “tough competition to a chameleon”, a reference to an ability to change colours. Opposition MP Sanjay Raut, from the Shiv Sena (UBT) party, said Mr Kumar had developed “amnesia”, which was “very dangerous for the country, politics and democracy”.

It is unclear who INDIA will choose to lead its campaign in Bihar now that Mr Kumar's JD(U) party will campaign alongside the BJP.

The BJP currently holds 17 of Bihar's 40 seats, while the JD(U) has 16 with the rest split between smaller parties.

"We kept saying that seat-sharing needs to happen immediately ... INDIA lacked plans to fight against the BJP,” said KC Tyagi, JD(U) spokesman.

Political analyst Prashant Kishor said the move also reflected badly on Mr Modi and the BJP, because the party previously said it would not welcome Mr Kumar.

"I have been saying this since starting that Nitish Kumar can swap any time," he said. "This has become a part of his politics. But today's developments have shown that all parties and leaders in Bihar are paltumaars [turncoats].

"It is now proved that Narendra Modi, [Home Minister] Amit Shah and the BJP are also paltumaars, who were saying BJP's doors are closed for Nitish Kumar."

He also predicted the current alliance in Bihar would not last until the next state assembly elections, due in 2025. The BJP-led NDA currently has 127 MPs in the 243-seat Bihar state assembly.

Nitish Kumar's career

Mr Kumar, an ambitious leader from a class of tillers, is known to have harboured the dream of becoming prime minister of India. He entered politics in 1985 and was elected as a legislator in the Bihar assembly from Janata Dal. His first political switch was in 1994 when he formed a new group called the Samata Party.

He emerged as a key ally of the BJP in 1996 when he was picked as a legislator in general elections and helped the BJP-led NDA form a national government.

Mr Kumar, who held high-profile portfolios of railway and transport minister in the NDA government, took the oath as the Bihar chief minister for the first time in 2000. He was supported by the BJP.

He formed Janata Dal (United) in 2003 with other regional leaders and won the election in alliance with the BJP, defeating the Rashtriya Janata Dal government and ending its 15-year rule in the state.

Mr Kumar cut ties with the BJP in 2013 when the NDA announced Mr Modi as its PM candidate. He wanted a leader with a “clean and secular image”, amid criticism of Mr Modi over the sectarian violence that broke out in Gujarat when he was chief minister of the state in 2014.

That same year, Mr Kumar formed a grand alliance with its rival RJD and Congress to take on the BJP and a year later he won the state elections and continued as the chief minister.

But he returned to the BJP-led NDA's fold and formed a new government with them in 2017, after a corruption scandal involving the RJD.

In 2020 polls, the BJP emerged as the largest party with 74 seats, while Mr Kumar's JD(U) was reduced to 43 Members of the Legislative Assembly. He formed the government in alliance with the BJP and remained the chief minister.

However, in 2022, he again switched sides after snapping ties with the BJP over allegations it was trying to split the JD(U). He criticised the BJP and vowed to "never again" ally with the party.

He governed the state in alliance with RJD and INC, while also forming the anti-BJP INDIA coalition on an international level, before pulling out of the alliance to join the BJP on Sunday.

Updated: January 29, 2024, 1:10 PM