The latest turn of events in Bihar politics reaffirms two things. First, there are no permanent friends and foes in politics. The JD(U) and RJD fought a fierce electoral battle in the 2020 assembly elections. They will now be sharing power in the state. The BJP and JD(U) contested the 2015 assembly election against each other, became friends in 2017 and formed a coalition government. Second, Tuesday’s developments underline that ideology has very little role in Indian politics today. Ordinary voters are confused if Nitish Kumar was doing justice to his ideology when he was in alliance with the BJP earlier or if he is being true to his leanings now while forming a government in alliance with the RJD and others.
These are larger questions. The more immediate question is: Will the new coalition government survive? Other questions arise as well: Can Nitish Kumar run a JD(U)-RJD coalition government when he received a mandate to run a BJP-JD(U) government? What will be the impact of this change in Bihar politics and how will the development impact national politics?
The latest turn of events will certainly mean a realignment of social and political forces in Bihar. The state seems to be all set for Mandal 2.0 politics with the JD(U) and RJD aiming to mobilise OBCs and other marginalised sections of voters while the BJP would try to maximise on upper castes votes while also making inroads amongst the Dalits and OBC voters, especially the “lower” sections of the latter, with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha election. In the last few years, the BJP – riding on the popularity of Nitish Kumar in Bihar and Narendra Modi at the Centre — has been able to attract lower OBC voters and a section of the Dalits. The Bihar realignment could pose a challenge to the party in retaining this support base. The prime minister has recently appealed to the marginalised sections amongst Muslims, the Pasmanda community. However, his call is unlikely to resonate with this community in Bihar.
Though the Congress is a junior partner in the alliance, being part of the ruling coalition will give it a new lease of life, not only in Bihar but in other states as well. This could boost the morale of party workers. Smaller parties like the LJP and LJNSP will have no choice but to be a part of one or the other alliance. The politics of Bihar could turn completely bipolar, at least in 2024.
The BJP could lose some seats in 2024 if it contests against a united opposition. However, in the long run, this turn of events could pave the way for the expansion of the BJP’s support base in Bihar. The party could build a new leadership helping it to emerge from the shadow of Nitish Kumar.
The realignment could also give a new lease of life to the JD(U), but it remains to be seen what the development means for Nitish Kumar in the long run. There were clear signs of the party being on the wane in the last few years. Its vote share has undergone a steady decline since 2019. Lokniti-CSDS surveys gave clear evidence of Nitish Kumar’s popularity during the initial years of his chief ministership. But there has been a steady decline in his appeal in the past five to seven years. The latest change may dent Kumar’s image further.
The coming together of the JD(U)-RJD and Congress also sends a message to regional parties in other states. They must come together to halt the Shah-Modi duo’s victory march (Ashwamedh yajna). The recent toppling of the Maharashtra government and BJP President J P Nadda’s assertion that regional parties are on their way out has alarmed the leaders of these parties. The selective use of central forces against Opposition leaders is another cause for concern. The experiment in Bihar may, therefore. motivate the regional parties to come together before the 2024 Lok Sabha election. But the big question is: Can these parties sink their differences?
Despite his political somersaults and declining credibility, Nitish Kumar may still be acceptable to leaders of some regional parties as the possible face of the Opposition for 2024. But the task is cut out for him. It is difficult to assume that leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and some others will accept Kumar as the leader of a united Opposition. In any case, there is a big “if” about opposition parties coming together in their fight against Modi.
But all this does not mean that this re-alignment will have no impact on the BJP. The coming together of the JD(U) and RJD could make the Opposition more vocal and critical of the Centre’s policies. It would be better placed to mount an attack on the BJP over rising prices and growing unemployment. These critical voices may get subdued in the euphoria over nationalism – likely the BJP’s most important plank for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections given that the construction of the Ram Mandir is likely to be completed by then. In recent times, Opposition parties have raised questions on matters related to price rise and unemployment but they have failed to find resonance with the common voters on the ground.
The writer is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and a political analyst. Views expressed are personal