When Nitish Kumar dumped the BJP on August 9 to form a new government in Bihar with the RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, who as leader of the opposition was ever willing to brawl with him on matters of governance and had even derided him as “the biggest liar” not so long ago, it did not shock the State’s 7.3-crore electorate, who are by now used to seeing sworn political enemies reorient their ideological moorings to cling on to power.
Five years ago, in a similar act of political see-sawing, Nitish Kumar had abandoned the RJD and the Congress, which had powered his emphatic win in the 2015 Bihar Assembly election.
While political observers debated the pros and cons of Nitish Kumar’s latest manoeuvre, the BJP went ballistic. One of its leaders made the implausible claim that the 71-year-old Chief Minister intended to shield a terror nexus that allegedly exists between senior bureaucrats in the State and the Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical Islamist outfit. According to the BJP, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) abruptly jumped ship to join hands with the opposition in a bid to prevent crackdowns on the PFI. JD(U) national secretary Rajiv Ranjan Prasad made light of the allegations, framing them as the “onset of mental imbalance”.
The BJP’s outbursts indicate that fear-mongering and powerful expositions of national interest will be the main ingredient to expand its political base in Bihar, where Nitish Kumar’s monopolistic control of power had relegated the BJP to a junior ally since 1996 when it joined hands with the erstwhile Samata Party, a Janata Dal offshoot spearheaded by George Fernandes and Nitish Kumar in 1994 until they, along with most of the party leadership, joined the JD(U) in 2003.
Bad blood with BJP
As the shadow of a bitter political jousting looms large in Bihar’s fractious political landscape, it is important to examine and understand the events and circumstances that provoked Nitish Kumar to bid an acrimonious goodbye to his old ally, and the bearing it would have on the State’s maze of castes and identities.
Was Nitish Kumar’s decision solely guided by the BJP’s apparent bid to split his party and his rumoured ambition to vault into national prominence, as general discussions in the media suggest? Or was there a more nuanced thinking embedded in that decision?
It is no secret that Nitish Kumar was riled by the BJP’s constant hobnobbing with the JD(U)’s R.C.P. Singh, a former IAS officer and powerful party insider, who, like the Bihar Chief Minister, is from the Kurmi community and shares his image of an educated, sober politician, assets that qualified him to be his potential replacement. BJP president J.P. Nadda’s recent assertion in Patna that “in the times to come, only an ideology driven party like the BJP will survive” added fuel to the fire.
However, interactions with sources in the JD(U) indicated that even if the BJP had remained a quiescent player in Bihar’s politics, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that it leads would have withered. After the JD(U) was relegated to a mere 43 seats in the 2020 Bihar Assembly election, scepticism grew in the party about the electoral utility of its alliance with the BJP. The JD(U) officially blames the “Chirag model” for dissuading BJP supporters from voting for it, a reference to LJP leader Chirag Paswan’s decision to field challengers in all the seats where Nitish Kumar’s candidates were contesting. But privately its leaders claimed that they had sensed an inherent disinclination in the BJP’s savarna or upper-caste voter base for Nitish Kumar, which made them apprehensive about the party’s electoral prospects in the days to come.
Also read: The BJP’s ‘swallowing’ tactics in Bihar
The BJP’s shadow also alienated it from the State’s roughly 17 per cent Muslim population: 76 per cent of Muslims reportedly voted for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and only 5 per cent for the NDA in the 2020 election. This sparked a rethink within the party, leading to a decision to resuscitate its grand-alliance with the RJD and the Congress as early as mid-2021.
Burying the hatchet
Apparently, RJD founder Lalu Prasad favoured burying the hatchet with Nitish Kumar, but it was Tejashwi, now Nitish Kumar’s deputy in the new government, who resisted the idea, buoyed by his emergence as a formidable opposition leader. “He did not want Nitish Kumar to hijack the opposition space,” a source in the RJD said.
The current bonhomie between Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar, followers of socialist veteran Ram Manohar Lohia and erstwhile colleagues in the Janata Dal, which ended the Congress’ hegemony in Bihar in 1990 by consolidating Other Backward Caste (OBC) votes, raises several questions.
Will the ardently felt need for opposition unity now be achievable? Will it be tenacious? Will there be consensus for Nitish Kumar’s name as the challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Can stitching up coalitions of disparate regional parties with anti-Modism as the common thread counter the commanding narrative on patriotism and national security that have, under Modi’s aegis, consumed large parts of the country and heralded the supremacy of Hindutva over caste?
A recent survey by an English news weekly claimed that despite Nitish Kumar’s departure, the NDA was pegged to win 286 seats if the general election was held today. But senior Congress leader Shakeel Ahmad dismissed the finding. He told Frontline: “The BJP’s ouster from Bihar has demolished the aura of invincibility surrounding it. It has also galvanised the secular parties’ cadre everywhere.”
A close look at the politics of Nitish Kumar, Tejashwi Yadav, and Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Akhilesh Yadav shows that these parties have reached a consensus on the need to lace together the people’s fundamental concerns, including unemployment, price rise and agrarian crisis, with a re-energised campaign advocating the backward classes’ aspirations to beat the rainbow Hindu consolidation of the BJP.
Also read: BJP and Nitish Kumar joust in Bihar
Throughout the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election in February-March, Akhilesh Yadav raised the pitch for a caste census. In Bihar, Tejashwi has strived for the same. The JD(U)-BJP government cleared the proposal for such a census in June, after the BJP succumbed to Nitish Kumar’s pressure.
Prepping for anti-Modi fight
These developments come at a time when the Congress is unable to rebound despite confrontations with the Modi government on matters of public interest. As a result, regional satraps are sanguine about their elevation as Modi’s primary opponents. “It is time to look beyond Rahul Gandhi”, a confidante of Akhilesh Yadav told Frontline during the Uttar Pradesh election, while discussing the contours of a potential front against Modi.
Sources confirmed that over the past year there have been on-and-off communications among NCP leader Sharad Pawar, Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav, with all of them converging on the point that the Congress was indispensable in their scheme of things, but none was willing to let it control the levers of an opposition alliance.
- Nitish Kumar dumped BJP to join hands with Tejashwi Yadav.
- An outraged BJP is likely to harp on national interest to expand its base in Bihar.
- Chirag Paswan of the LJP is a natural ally of the BJP.
- This development comes even as Opposition leaders are discussing a potential front against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
RJD insiders told Frontline that they were marshalling support for Nitish Kumar as the face of the opposition and were hopeful that his vast experience and pro-development image would best other aspirants. In public, however, Nitish Kumar rebuffs the idea. “I have no such thoughts,” he told mediapersons in Patna recently.
A person close to Lalu Prasad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that when Nitish Kumar recently met Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, the two leaders underlined that safeguarding the Constitution and the social fabric and arresting the BJP’s privatisation sweep were imperatives that warranted a unified struggle by the opposition.
The source also said that Sonia Gandhi’s disposition in that meeting and in many earlier parleys suggested that she was “not hostile to their [RJD-JD(U)] proclivity for a non-Congress leadership”.
But lack of hostility in politics is not approval, it is more often than not buying time. It is likely that the Congress would let the vagueness linger. There are a few reasons: one, it keeps its own prospects for the top job open. Two, in the absence of a leader with a pan-India appeal, whispering campaigns favouring more than one individual, such as Nitish Kumar in the Hindi heartland and another candidate in the south, will be a clever way to mobilise anti-BJP votes more effectively.
As Nitish Kumar, Tejashwi Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav prepare to subtly and gradually make the vexed question of a nationwide caste census the pivot of their politics, their supporters need to be cautious in their optimism. The road to Mandal 2.0 is arduous and accident-prone, as 2024 is not 1989. Over the past two decades, a large number of small, impoverished castes have grown hostile to the Yadavs, whom they accuse of nibbling away the benefits of reservation. It is this frustration that the BJP has seized in Uttar Pradesh to stir a passionate, dependable following of non-Yadav OBCs since 2014.
The BJP’s meteoric rise in Uttar Pradesh also threw up an important question: can the coming together of regional leaders guarantee a fusion of the voters they patronise? RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary’s alliance with Akhilesh Yadav fizzled out in western Uttar Pradesh as the Jats were reluctant to vote for the SP’s Muslim candidates. The defection of powerful OBC leaders such as Swami Prasad Maurya, Dharam Singh Saini and Om Prakash Rajbhar from the NDA also failed to crystallise into a political insurrection against the BJP. Both Maurya and Saini lost from their constituencies. A staggering 65 per cent of non-Yadav OBCs voted for the BJP, according to a CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey.
Also read:The case for caste census
In Bihar, where the RJD’s Yadav and Muslim votes are expected to transfer to the JD(U), one cannot state with certainty that Nitish’s wide coalition of non-Yadav OBCs, such as the Dhanuk, Mandal, Koeri, Kushwaha, and Kurmi communities, would be keen to rally around the RJD in the long term, even if they do so for the time being.
At any rate, the Yadavs, Muslims, and the communities loyal to Nitish Kumar make the grand alliance an impregnable fort for now.
Speaking to Frontline, Himanshu Singh, a political commentator, said: “The BJP’s communal drum-beating of 80 per cent versus 20 per cent, which was successful in Uttar Pradesh, will not resonate in Bihar where the caste matrix is far more layered and competing.”
However, he is loath to bet on the sustainability of the grand alliance. “Nitish Kumar believes in “live today to fight tomorrow”. Realpolitik outweighs ideological commitment in his scheme of things,” he pointed out.
The BJP’s rank and file are not crestfallen. They are showing signs of being determined for a political churning. Nitish Kumar’s departure allows them to target his OBC votes, besides Dalits. It also opens opportunities for Chirag Paswan, Nitish Kumar’s bete noire who had remained in the sidelines ever since the NDA returned to power in November 2020.
In that election, Chirag Paswan reportedly spoiled the JD(U)’s prospects in 32 seats, projecting himself as Modi’s Hanuman and relaying a message to the BJP voters to back him instead of Nitish Kumar.
Chirag’s savvy personality, clean image, an energised campaign model premised on “Bihar first, Bihari first” vision, and his part-Dalit, part-Brahmin background make him a natural ally of the BJP for replicating Uttar Pradesh’s social engineering of the savarnas, Dalits and non-Yadav OBCs. But the RJD is downplaying any such possibility. “The BJP doesn’t have credible leaders in Bihar. There is also a wave of anger against it over a sagging economy,” Sanjay Singh, a senior RJD leader, told Frontline.
But he was oblivious to the fact that the BJP has a battle-hardened cadre, and that the party’s powerful communication on national security and distribution of sops and successes in infrastructure building and digitisation have the effect of a tranquiliser on an otherwise disillusioned electorate. And that is the opposition’s supreme challenge.