Modi scores big as state chief teams up with BJP

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.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2017, with the headline 'Modi scores big as state chief teams up with BJP'. Print Edition | Subscribe