One stream of debate in political circles across the country about the developments in Bihar—the collapse of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, the re-emergence of a Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of seven parties led by the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Nitish Kumar’s return as Chief Minister—was of their import on national politics, especially the prospects of opposition parties in the 2024 general election. The possibility of Nitish Kumar emerging as the Prime Minister candidate of a united opposition was a key component of it.
Responding to the media, Tejashwi Yadav, RJD leader and Deputy Chief Minister in the new Bihar government, emphasised Nitish Kumar’s long experience. “Nitishji is the most experienced Chief Minister in India now and has a great track record in terms of governance. Moreover, if someone like Narendra Modi can become Prime Minister, Nitish Kumar is eminently suited for the post.”
The RJD leader went on to discuss the larger political context of the developments. He said the recent moves of the opposition in Bihar had shown the way for a national alternative to Modi in 2024. He also noted that the BJP’s machinations against its own allies in a fanatical drive to create a monolithic national political structure were getting exposed on a daily basis. “The BJP now has no major ally left in the entire Hindi belt. The developments in Maharashtra, which saw a split in the Shiv Sena and the formation of a new BJP coalition government in the State, provided a thorough expose of these unseemly manoeuvres. Similar games were played out in Bihar, too. But Nitishji realised it in good time and made the countermoves. This trend will ultimately lead to the total isolation of the BJP across the country.”
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The fact is that the developments in Bihar have given a fillip to the opposition camp in the country. Regional parties that are currently in power in important States such as West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Kerala, the Trinamool Congress, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) respectively, have hailed the change in Bihar as a watershed moment in the early run-up to the 2024 election. Other significant opposition parties, including the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, have also marked the change in Bihar as a turning point with immense potential to strengthen the opposition collective.
Even within the BJP, there is a grudging admission that the change in Bihar has given the opposition a new lease of life. Many BJP leaders in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Jharkhand said the Lok Sabha election results in Bihar in 2024 could be a “total reverse of the 2019 elections”. In 2019, the BJP- JD(U)-Lok Janshakthi Party alliance, which essentially formed the NDA, won 39 of the 40 seats in Bihar. The Congress won the lone opposition seat.
Arithmetic of caste
The vote arithmetic, however, after the coming together of the RJD and the JD(U) as well as smaller parties such as the Congress, the Hindustani Avam Morcha, and the Left parties, adds up to a vote share of more than 50 per cent. The Left parties—CPI(M-L), CPI(M), and CPI—were not part of the Mahagathbandhan that trounced the BJP in the 2015 Bihar Assembly election by winning 180 out of 243 seats. With the Left too now a part of the grand alliance, the blow to the BJP next time will be even more devastating.
Central to these projections are the caste equations in Bihar. The RJD’s core vote base consists of the Muslim-Yadav combination, accounting for approximately 30 per cent of the population. The JD(U)’s vote base consists of the Other Backward Caste (OBC) Kurmi community and a clutch of Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), making up roughly 13 per cent of the vote share. The Left parties, especially the CPI(ML), which has a significant following among the marginalised communities, including Dalits and EBCs, account for about 7 per cent of the vote share. The Congress, with a marginal influence among the upper castes and a section of minorities, should bring in about 3 to 4 per cent.
The BJP’s failure to replicate its social engineering success in other northern States such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh adds greater value to this caste arithmetic. In both States the BJP systematically built up a relatively strong base among the OBC, EBC, and Dalit communities. But in Bihar, the saffron party is still essentially an upper-caste outfit with limited reach among certain EBC communities.
In fact, it was trying to make use of its alliance with the JD(U) and other smaller parties such as the Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) to enhance its support base among the EBC communities. A few months ago, the BJP lured all three VIP MLAs into its fold. Similar plans were in the offing for the JD(U), too, with the BJP getting in touch with a number of JD(U) MLAs in Bihar and the party’s MPs. The operation was modelled on the lines of its approach in Arunachal Pradesh in 2020, where it practically swallowed the JD(U) parliamentary party, with all six of that party’s MLAs defecting to the BJP.
The kingpin of these operations, reportedly, was R.C.P. Singh, who was once practically the number two in the JD(U). He became a Union Minister and was actively being spurred by the BJP central leadership, especially Home Minister Amit Shah. But Nitish Kumar saw through these plans. Talking to the media after parting ways with the NDA, JD(U) national president Lalan Singh said: “After Maharashtra, the BJP’s ‘Operation Lotus’ was headed for Bihar. If we had not got out of the NDA, the BJP would have toppled Nitish Kumarji from the Chief Minister’s position. But Nitishji acted just in time.”
With the optimistic electoral projections for 2024, rumours within the Mahagathbandhan are that Nitish Kumar will hand over the Chief Minister’s position to Tejashwi Yadav during the Lok Sabha election campaign period and move to national politics. Projecting Nitish Kumar as Prime Minister candidate, it is argued, will prop up a “Bihari pride” identity politics, too, which will benefit the Mahagathbandhan. It is also said that the Congress, the main opposition party at the national level, will have no alternative but to support the RJD-JD(U) proposal on the Chief Minister candidate.
Question of leadership
The question of whether Nitish Kumar should be given the leadership of a unified opposition is likely to continue apace for many months. In terms of electoral successes, the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the TRS in Telangana are expected to do as well as the Mahagathbandhan in Bihar. The SP and the NCP are also expected to perform better than in the previous Lok Sabha election in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Over and above this, there are big question marks on Nitish Kumar’s ideological and political integrity. He has shown, time and again, that he has no qualms about surrendering to the BJP leadership unlike other opposition leaders such as Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and Akhilesh Yadav. This is a point of contention among several secular opposition parties, including the Left parties, which have never compromised with communal politics, especially of the Hindutva variety.
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Many leaders of secular opposition parties in northern, southern, and western India are discussing whether K. Chandrashekhar Rao of the TRS could well be the dark horse when it comes to the final choice as the leader of a unified opposition. Their refrain is that the TRS as a party and KCR as a leader have many plus points to justify a greater national role for him. One, the TRS has a relatively good record in terms of governance. Two, KCR has been trenchant in his criticism of the BJP and particularly Prime Minister Modi. Three, KCR is multilingual and speaks Hindi fluently unlike many other south Indian leaders and can communicate directly with the north Indian electorate.
How much momentum these points gather within the opposition political firmament will be known in the days to come. But there is little doubt that the recent developments and regime change in Bihar have infused a new life into opposition politics as a whole. So much so, the choice of a Prime Minister candidate is also part of the frame of reference of the energetic debate sparked by the change.