NEW DELHI • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has scored a major political victory - the chief minister of a populous northern state has joined forces with his ruling party, further weakening the field of credible opposition candidates.
Mr Nitish Kumar, once seen as a potential challenger in the 2019 general election, was sworn in as Bihar chief minister yesterday, a day after quitting the post, ostensibly over a row with his coalition ally, and will govern with Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This realignment in Bihar, home to over 100 million people, means BJP now rules - either alone or in coalition - in 17 of India's 29 states.
Mr Modi has led BJP to a string of state election wins since coming to power in 2014, expanding its base across the northern heartlands and into the remote north-east, and cementing his claim to a second term.
"Modi's road to power in 2019 is smoother with Nitish on his side," said Mr Sankarshan Thakur, an editor at The Telegraph newspaper and the author of a book on Mr Kumar.
Bihar had been a rare blot on Mr Modi's electoral record, after a three-party alliance led by Mr Kumar handed BJP a heavy defeat in late 2015. Mr 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 Mr Modi.
Mr Kumar served as a minister in the last BJP-led government, and his return to the fold underscores Mr Modi's political dominance and tactical acumen in either defeating or co-opting rivals.
Mr Kumar's resignation on Wednesday followed a row with coalition partner Lalu Prasad Yadav, a charismatic former Bihar chief minister previously jailed for graft.
The resignation centred on a disagreement over the role of Mr Yadav's son as a regional minister. Some analysts said Mr Kumar, 66, clearly saw a better political future in cutting his losses and aligning himself with Mr Modi.
Mr Kumar's regional Janata Dal (United) party and BJP have enough seats to secure a narrow majority in the state legislature, although Mr Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal is the largest party.