In April, 2016, five months after becoming Bihar chief minister for the third time, Nitish Kumar said all non-BJP parties needed to have come together to free India of the divisive Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
Today, Kumar is forming government with the BJP. What has changed in the 15 months since his call for a Sangh-mukt Bharat is that opposition parties have failed to come together, to make any dent in Narendra Modi's popularity, and show any willingness to put up a serious contest in 2019.
Kumar's prime ministerial ambitions have never been a secret. In April last year, he became the national president of his party, the Janata Dal (United). It was part of his effort to project himself as a national leader, ready for the national stage after having vanquished the indefatigable Modi-Shah duo in the Bihar assembly elections.
Since then, the opposition has looked weaker every day, and the Congress has moved from one political blunder to another. It was the Congress party's responsibility, as the only pan-India opposition party, and the mothership of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), to rise to the occasion and support Kumar as a national face.
But why would the arrogant Congress, even in its most comatose phase, support a regional leader to become the opposition's mascot against Modi? It would rather wait for an eternity for its scion — the part-time Rahul Gandhi — to do that.
But why would the arrogant Congress party, even in its most comatose phase, support a regional leader to become the opposition's mascot against Narendra Modi? It would rather wait for an eternity for its scion, the part-time Rahul Gandhi to do that.
The Congress has only weakened in state after state, losing election after election, and no, Punjab doesn't count because it didn't defeat the BJP there. Meanwhile, other regional parties have failed to take any initiative. Even his own alliance partner, Lalu Prasad Yadav, didn't keep his promise of launching a national agitation against the Modi government. The regional opposition leaders are either ageing and unable to transition to the youth in their party, or worrying about going to jail with the CBI sword hanging over the heads.
Why join the BJP?
Just because the Congress and other opposition parties were not ready to join hands and fight the Modi juggernaut, why did Kumar have to go and join that juggernaut?
The answer lies in the unsustainability of the Nitish-Lalu alliance. The Mahagatbandhan or the Grand Alliance, it was clear from day zero, wasn't going to last forever. The question was not 'if', but when the alliance would break. Most thought it would break around the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but the stars made their alignment clear in 2017 itself.
The reason why the Mahagatbandhan was unsustainable was Yadav's ambitions. Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal agreed to support Kumar as chief minister despite having more MLAs because Yadav couldn't have been CM anyway. Convicted in a corruption case, a Supreme Court ruling prevents him from holding public office. The 2015 election and the subsequent alliance government was for Yadav the time to build his son Tejashwi Yadav's career. Tejashwi became deputy chief minister.
But sooner or later the son would grow up. Tejashwi was doing well in building a public profile of his own. Come 2020, the next assembly election, Lalu Yadav would demand his pound of flesh. Why would Kumar be CM again in 2020? Kumar feared Yadav would stake claim for Tejashwi to be chief minister.
This is why the Mahagatbandhan couldn't have been an everlasting formula to keep Kumar in the chief minister's chair. Sooner or later, the Yadavs would have asked Kumar to vacate it.
The only condition in which Kumar would be happy to vacate it would be if he was getting a national role. After demonetisation, surgical strikes, the BJP's massive victory in Uttar Pradesh and so on, it became clear the Congress wasn't going to get its act together, and opposition unity wasn't in sight.
The right opportunity
The corruption scandal Tejashwi got embroiled in, gave Kumar the perfect opportunity to strike when the iron is hot and take the moral high ground. Nitish never asked Tejashwi to resign — a point Yadav has made.
Kumar and his party only made the point that the deputy CM's alleged involvement in a corruption scandal affects Nitish's corruption-free clean image. He only wanted the Yadavs to be able to publicly distance themselves from corruption allegations.
What you can't fault Nitish Kumar for is shrewd politics — currently out of fashion with other non-BJP leaders.
Had Tejashwi resigned, along with other RJD ministers, and the RJD had given outside support to the JDU, Nitish Kumar wouldn't have had the excuse to change sides and go with the BJP.
Doing so was, however, not a great idea for Yadav as it would have killed Tejashwi's career even before it had begun.
Kumar's evidently planned operation to check-mate Yadav was a political necessity. You can criticise Kumar for having no political morality, for using ideological excuses only when it suits him, for caring about nothing but his occupation of the chief minister's chair. What you can't fault Kumar for is shrewd politics — currently out of fashion with other non-BJP leaders.