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 continued…