On Wednesday night, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar yet again invoked his conscience to justify his decision to switch sides and remain in office. Was it the same inner voice that advised him in 2013, soon after the BJP declared Narendra Modi its prime minister candidate, to leave NDA after being a part of the alliance for 17 years, as Union minister and Bihar chief minister? Modi’s advent to central leadership, he had suggested, presented a shift in the BJP’s political orientation, which he could not reconcile with. In the months that followed, he called for a “Sangh-mukt Bharat”. He joined Lalu Prasad, his rival in Bihar politics, now convicted for corruption and hence disqualified to hold public office, to form the Mahagathbandhan on the twin planks of secularism and social justice. The Mahagathbandhan won the mandate after offering itself as a counter to the NDA in Bihar. As late as this February, Nitish held forth on the need for a broad secular Opposition alliance against the NDA, even mocked BJP chief Amit Shah prompting his admirers to project him as the national alternative to Prime Minister Modi. Has a CBI FIR against Tejaswi Yadav trumped all this? What’s the next line from Nitish’s inner voice — is it just a malleable abstraction with no memory of the past?
These questions may seem philosophical but are political too. The Nitish-BJP government sworn in Thursday is not what Bihar had voted for in 2015. Two political outfits that fought each other as a part of different coalitions have come together ostensibly for good governance but clearly for the sake of office — to avoid another election. Didn’t Nitish’s inner voice ask him to dissolve the House and call for fresh elections with the BJP as an alliance partner? That said, the collapse of the Mahagathbandhan is also a reflection on his two allies, the RJD and Congress. Bihar 2015 was the big Opposition story since the NDA won a decisive mandate in 2014. It was deemed a model for Opposition unity and that now lies in tatters. Kumar’s political opportunism apart, the Mahagathbandhan fell apart also because of Lalu Prasad’s stubborn refusal to recognise the political narrative that has gripped the nation since the 2014 election. The BJP under Modi has been successful in presenting individual merit and probity in public life as markers of a new politics. Nitish’s track record in politics reinforced this narrative and helped the Mahagathbandhan attract voters. Lalu smugly ignored this welcome shift in Indian politics and read the mandate as an opportunity to feather his children’s nests. A new mandate met old politics. Such venality in reducing power to fuel a family enterprise and an avenue for patronage and rent-seeking is unlikely to help a political alliance or party to stay afloat today.
The Bihar events also testify to the tactical acumen of the BJP’s political managers who are quick to exploit political flux and win allies and form governments. This was on display in Goa and Manipur earlier this year when it turned fractured verdicts to its advantage making the Opposition look unimaginative, helpless and vulnerable. For which the Opposition has no one to blame except itself.