With Lalu Prasad offering to consume poison, can the amrit of power be far behind? We shall have to wait for a few months to see if that, indeed, is the case. Politics and arithmetic are not the same. The three parties, the Congress, JD(U) and RJD, together polled over 46 per cent in the last Lok Sabha elections in Bihar. By coming together, they are unlikely to reach that figure when assembly elections take place later this year. Hence, the shaky coalition in Bihar may or may not make an impact. In the present context of Bihar, the coalition of these three players, just as it is necessary for them, is also certain to hit quite a few roadblocks, beginning with the current haggling and game of impatience. And yet, the battle for Bihar is going to be a crucial one, not just for the state, but also for the direction of political equations and competition elsewhere in the country. This, despite the fact that neither the RJD nor the JD(U) has much of a presence elsewhere in the country.
In the story of a nearly two-decade-long comradeship and of rivalry spanning an almost equal amount of time, there are uniquely Bihari layers — the rise of the Yadavs and Kurmis as claimants of the OBC platform; the utter neglect of routine governance; Bihar’s continued backwardness on most parameters; the irrepressible power of the upper castes. But the Nitish-Lalu story will be keenly watched also for its resonance outside Bihar.
In the mid-’90s, many state-level players realised that a new phase of political equations had begun, and seizing the opportunity, aligned with the BJP — Nitish was only one among them. Of all those state-level players, he was the last to snap ties with the BJP in 2013. Partly, this development can be explained in terms of a federalised game of power: state parties versus the so-called national parties. In most states where such alliances were forged in the Nineties, the BJP was a junior (but all-India) player, initially seeking only a foothold. But in due course, it began to expand its base, bringing it into conflict with the state-level partner. This has happened practically everywhere, including in Maharashtra. Punjab is the only exception. The lesson from that novel experiment of coalition-building was that once the “all-India” party gains a foothold, equations are bound to change.
Interestingly, now the Congress may play the same game to bring itself back into the reckoning — in Bihar and UP, it would have no problem in aligning with the stronger state-level players. Whether it can similarly find allies in other states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu or Maharashtra remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether such coalitions would be durable or remain contingent. The central lesson, however, is that in the initial stages at least, such coalitions have to be equally beneficial to both the state-level and the national-level players. Like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and West Bengal have an additional complication in that there is more than one state-level player. Hence, there are more roadblocks in the path of coalitions.
Yet, there are two larger lessons from the Lalu-Nitish break-up and patch-up. From Lalu’s point of view, the “drinking of poison” may have come too late, yet it has importance. The Nineties was the decade of popular-populist leaders hogging the limelight at the state level. It was also the decade when the all-India scene could never be shadowed by any popular figure. So, state-level leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Chandrababu Naidu refused to drink the “poison of power-sharing” — particularly within their own parties. Instead, they chose to cut their own feet by over-depending on their personal appeal and indulged in a politics of narcissism. That worked for a while and then image-fatigue set in, social equations resurfaced, governance trumped small-time charisma. But more importantly, they were all caught unawares by the rise of popular leadership immersed in narcissism and catching people’s imagination across states — something the Mamatas and Lalus could never do. While at one end of the country,
J. Jayalalithaa, and at another, Arvind Kejriwal, are trying to retain their space by resorting to personal appeals, the time has come when state-level leadership would be overshadowed by the newly ensconced all-India leader. So, the business of drinking poison would probably have to be replicated by quite a few political leaders in the times to come if they want to survive in the era of personalised power at the all-India level.
The other lesson is by far the more serious one. In the Nineties, most state-level parties aligned with the BJP (the only exceptions are Lalu, Mulayam Singh Yadav and, ironically, Sharad Pawar). One could, of course, call these alliances “opportunistic”. But that is not their real limitation because that is what politics has to be anyway. These alliances suffered from another severe shortcoming. In spite of most parties coming to terms with the “Mandalisation” of politics and the shift towards a more market-oriented economic policy, a fundamental schism remains in India’s polity. This may be often rather crudely and conveniently appropriated in the name of secularism, but the question about what constitutes India and whether we eventually move towards the “Hindu melting pot” model remains not only unresolved but deeply disputed. State parties that turned to the BJP during the Nineties were wrong in assessing the status of this deeper dispute and instead posited the intellectual calculations dragged from the late Sixties about the Congress. This put a premium on anti/ non-Congress equations. One by one, many of those who entered into those calculations chose to move away — barring the Akalis in Punjab. The role of the deeper division cannot be ignored in this shift, although state-level equations combined to produce the outcome.
The rise of the BJP, the reassertion of versions of non-diverse national identity and the re-emergence of a single centre of power, have all added up to a phase of the remaking of the polity that would entail yet another churning as in the mid-Nineties. This is the beginning of a period when state-level players like Nitish and Lalu could take an initiative in establishing not just new state-level equations but a new set of parameters around which politics opposing the BJP may be shaped. Clearly, experiments of “poison drinking” like this one, would then have relevance not just to how political competition shapes up but also how political issues are defined.
Of course, each of the state-level leaders would have their own immediate problems to handle. Yet, in the thick of immediate political battles, the Lalus and Nitishes need to ponder over these larger issues in order to make their politics sustainable and relevant. Otherwise, their coming together, and a possible second break-up, would present us (and them) with merely another case of Tanu Weds Manu Returns — an entanglement in search of meaning.
The writer teaches political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University