The maha gathbandhan or grand alliance has hailed its own victory in Bihar and is being projected outside as the beginning of a brave new experiment of opposition unity against the BJP. The tie-up between Nitish Kumar and the Lalu Prasad-Congress combine won six of the 10 bypolls, bringing down the BJP tally from six to four in a state it had swept in the general elections. The day after, if you were Nitish Kumar, you might feel a sense of vindication.
If you were Nitish Kumar, perhaps you might also ask yourself if you had read it wrong — again.
If for long years Nitish was the politician who patiently waited on the sidelines for his turn on centrestage, once he made his place on it, he has shown a striking tendency to misread the political signs and to draw ill-judged lessons from adversity. His apparently wavering conviction in his own political project seems remarkable.
For now, it indicates that the maha gathbandhan in Bihar and its possible versions elsewhere could be creations of political defeatism. More generally, it suggests that the Nitish model in Bihar may need rescuing from Nitish.
Despite its imperfections, the Nitish model imbues “social justice” and “secularism” with the language of “development” and “good governance”. It is a significant step forward in Bihar, where under Lalu, politics traded in apocalyptic and pessimistic oppositions.
To be sure, Lalu also has singular achievements of his own. In a state of raging inequalities, his politics and charisma almost single-handedly shifted the balance of power in favour of the historically disprivileged castes. But as his success became more routinised and less reversible, it became difficult to hide his failure to link “social justice” to governance. As cover, Lalu projected and promoted a false antagonism between the two. For him, even today, it is a fight between “Mandal” and “Kamandal”, in which both remain frozen in their 1990s versions and neither has a developmental imprint.
Nitish’s unlikely partnership with the BJP, on the other hand, helped him forge a “coalition of extremes”. By bringing together the upper castes with the most backward, it arguably created some of the conditions that allowed caste polarisation to recede — and governance to come into focus in Bihar.
In 2013, when Nitish walked out of his alliance with the NDA, pointing to Narendra Modi’s imminent coronation as its prime ministerial candidate, he clearly miscalculated the costs of splitting with the BJP. The alienation of the upper castes meant the loss of support of the most articulate and aggressive sections of the electorate in a predominantly rural state where political mobilisation of the most backward groups is still halting and incomplete. It came at an already precarious time for the Nitish regime.
After its spectacular first-term achievements — in building roads, restoring law and order, and implementing innovative schemes such as cycles for schoolgirls — the Nitish government was slowing down.
In part, it was because a resurgent state was becoming increasingly extractive and corrupt as it spread into new corners. Short cuts taken in the first term had returned to haunt. And popular aspirations sparked by his early achievements were overtaking his government’s second tenure.
Then, in 2014, when he fought on his own, Nitish underestimated the Modi wave and overread his own rout. In his own mind, Nitish fought Modi in the Lok Sabha polls and lost ignominiously. This triggered his resignation as chief minister, and later pushed him into the alliance with Lalu.
But voters in the parliamentary polls may not have punished Nitish at all. By all accounts, they voted to oust the Congress and to bring change, of which Modi became the mascot. Travelling in Bihar ahead of the recent bypolls, it seemed evident that across castes and classes, voters agreed on one thing: the Lok Sabha polls were no referendum on Nitish. And that for the assembly polls, he would not only resume his place at the centre of the field, but also have less to worry about than was suggested by his own panicked reaction to the Lok Sabha defeat.
In fact, a burgeoning constituency is visible in Bihar, across the faultlines, for the Nitish model. But this constituency is still fragile. It could be alienated by the regressive alliance he has now struck with Lalu.
It calls itself “maha” or grand, but the tie-up was not an act of political creativity or ambition. It wasn’t born of the risk-taking or leap of imagination that marks out the good politicians or the brave ones. It is certainly not the much-awaited emergence of a wider coalition for social justice seeking a broader platform by linking itself with an agenda of governance.
One of the theories doing the rounds in Patna ahead of the bypolls best sums up the end-of-the-roadism that shores up this grand alliance: Nitish-Lalu would not be able to weather the good times, it said. Their alliance would snap if it did well and only hold up if it didn’t. Because if it did well, Nitish, might be encouraged to believe in himself again, and walk out of Lalu’s embrace.
After all, how long could he take the not-so-good-natured bada bhai-chhota bhai (older brother-younger brother) joshing, and the sidelining of his own political vocabulary by Lalu’s unreformed bluster? For someone whose government is said to have been in a fine agony over whether its one-year report card should say “Nyaya ke saath Vikas”, justice with development, or “Vikas ke saath Nyaya”, throwing in his lot with the Lalu worldview must hurt.
For the Nitish camp, the maha gathbandhan was a no-alternatives strategy. But for Nitish, there was an option, though admittedly a tougher one. He could have stayed his course and grappled with the turbulence that had overtaken the Nitish model.
Essentially, that would have meant facing up to a contradiction and a dilemma grown sharper after his split with the BJP. The contradiction arises from the Nitish government’s efforts to open up the rural power structures through positive discrimination at the bottom even as upper castes have continued to dominate institutions of the state at the highest echelons. Reservations of mukhiya posts for backward castes in panchayats, for instance, are slowly upending caste hierarchies. And the dilemma is this: while the political gains for him remain scattered and incompletely mobilised, the upper caste backlash against him is coherent and powerful.
To work his way out of the dilemma and the contradiction, however, Nitish would need a mediating institution, a go-between to help pull together all parts of his politics and government. What he really needs is a party that mobilises support and also plays a placating, tempering and cushioning role. The JD(U) is unequal to that task.
For that, of course, Nitish must own up to his share of the blame. To take his political experiment forward, he concentrated exclusively on instruments of the state. He came down on party networks of corruption and patronage. But at the same time, by overly relying on the bureaucracy, he starved the organisation of influence or participation in decision-making. As a result, JD(U) workers did not develop stakes in the Nitish project.
And now, having helped hollow out his party, and confronted by a BJP machine that fights a Lok Sabha election armed with the preparation of a panchayat poll, Nitish has joined hands with Lalu.
But what of the growing Nitish constituency? Could it have given him the breathing space he required to begin rebuilding his party? Could a direct connect with the people even have stood in for the missing party?
The most tantalising question now will be whether, and to what extent, Nitish can remain open to those possibilities as he sits on the maha gathbandhan stage next to Lalu.