There is an irony in trying to interpret Nitish’s break with Lalu as some kind of watershed moment in Indian politics. Does it represent the death of secularism? Does it represent the death of regional parties? But the blunt truth is that this moment is not a watershed, but merely a reminder of the eternal realities of Indian democracy: Indian democracy is politics all the way down. Any attempts to frame its realities in terms of encrusted master narratives is largely wishful thinking. None of the protagonists in this drama can bear the load of any deeper
Nitish Kumar has always been a politician’s politician. This has manifested itself in many ways. His first instinct has always been survival. He now has an enviable track record of managing to remain an indispensable figure in Bihar politics. His second instinct, like many politicians in India, is to ensure a relatively weak internal party organisation that ensures he is never challenged from the inside. He has combined that with a personal outreach, recognition, popular touch and a relative absence of personal thuggery to remain an important figure. In Bihar, electoral secularism was a wise thing to hold onto, which he did. But he never had any qualms about the NDA. He has also managed to paradoxically combine both dependence on allies with his own indispensability. Third, he has always played within its limitations. There has been immense clamour for him to take a national role. But he has seldom overreached. He has been ambitious, but without any illusions about his ability to play a larger national role. And his instinct was probably right: Without an organisation of your own, without a pan Indian ideology, without years of national outreach, any national ambition is tantamount to making yourself vulnerable rather than strong.
Indian politics is littered with state leaders who thought they could easily become national figures. The expectation that he would position himself as an opposition figure was, therefore, extremely odd. As a good politician, he believed in social engineering. But unlike many politicians of the Mandal era who remain trapped in their social base, Nitish has continually improvised. He engineered the “coalition of extremes” in his last incarnation with the BJP. The main achievement of his stint as chief minister after 2005 was to give Bihar a government with a broad social base that allowed a modicum of governance to be restored. But the keen eye for a fluidity of social bases will always make ideological niceties harder to hold onto.
Lalu, on the other hand, cuts a sorry figure. He is still a formidable politician in the sense that he has strong social roots. But instead of using that as a ground on which to stand and grow taller, he has overtime, used it to cover his own weaknesses. In the end that folksy charm, that confident bluster that caste politics gave him, could not disguise a few cardinal facts. He, to put it mildly, never managed to develop a reputation for governance. He was willing to jeopardise the future of the very constituencies he represented. He had more of a party than Nitish Kumar, but has entirely subordinated it to the demands of family loyalty. He has — partly because he has been less successful — also been less patient. And he never managed to overcome the reputation for corruption. The only hope for the Mahagathbandhan had rested on him using Nitish to overcome this deficiencies: Nitish would do the governance bit. The RJD would bide its time patiently. But that is when the BJP’s political imagination entered. It got Lalu on his biggest political vulnerability.
For a politician Lalu has been unusually slow in reading the writing on the wall. He failed to understand that if you are unable to manage perceptions on corruption you are vulnerable in this political climate. Whatever the truth of the charges against Tejaswi Yadav, the fact is that Lalu never mounted a convincing political response. Indeed, the very act of defending a family member reeked of the politics of corruption. This is one way in which Indian politics has changed. Second, he should have understood that Nitish could not afford to be seen to be playing second fiddle to Lalu. Once the corruption issue was raised, Nitish would have no choice but to respond. Lalu could have used this moment to show a statesmanlike like patience: Asked Tejaswi to step down and bided his time. But Lalu’s instinct and personality remain rooted in a political milieu that is becoming less relevant. Instead of strengthening Nitish, he made him more vulnerable.
So indeed, it is hard to see cosmic political significance in this moment. You have one leader, Nitish Kumar, who has always been a masterful but cautious creature of circumstance. You have Lalu whose political narrative has nothing to offer to modern India. And you have the BJP that plays serious political chess with the full throated aggression of boxing behind it.
What of the future? It is hard to tell. But if Nitish’s political instincts are sharp, he will have to remember one thing. Working a government with BJP support now is going to be a very different cup of tea than his last stint with the NDA. It may bring some short- term gains to Bihar. But the BJP is now a nationally dominant party, with a strong leadership. It also has greater ideological aggression. It will now take even more craftiness to contain that ideological poison in Bihar. There is good reason to be apprehensive on this score. It is also hard to see what Lalu’s strategy will be, now that his back is against the wall.
The fact that Indian democracy has been politics all the way down has been its strength: It has made for unlikely coalitions, prevented polarisation. But now with a new ideological force like the BJP so dominant, politics as usual will not suffice. The Opposition’s main failing has been that even in defeat it has refused to change. From Congress to Lalu, all opposition parties exude a sense of political unreality: Not a single leader is changed in defeat, no new ideological narrative, no organisational energy, no symbolic imagination. Like any politician, Nitish can be forgiven for thinking there is no future hanging out with this lot. He has been saying this quite clearly to the Congress. But the larger message for national politics is the opposition to the BJP cannot be built with the rotten materials of the old order.