It is very difficult to put a halo of high purpose, idealism, virtue or great hope around Nitish Kumar dumping the BJP and joining forces with the RJD. The fascinating thing about Nitish’s move is quite the opposite. It is pure political skulduggery in an old fashioned sense. Many politicians are opportunists. But they are often terrible at sensing opportunity. Nitish is the ultimate master at it. One might be tempted to say of Nitish to borrow Byron’s phrase “Thou Art Not False/But Thou Art Fickle.’’ But this would be to underestimate him. It speaks to Nitish’s nose for power that he knows when and how to strike, and nothing, not even his own past, constrains him.
Nitish’s standing in Bihar politics defies easy explanation. He has not built a strong party organisation. His social base pales in comparison to Lalu Prasad’s. He has no decisive record of leading from the front. His governance record after the first term raised immense hopes. But it has reverted to mean since. Bihar is staring at a huge fiscal deficit and is more dependent on central transfers than almost any other state. But he has managed to retain a kind of elusive popular presence in Bihar, especially amongst women voters, that all parties acknowledge.
This kind of switch is also made more possible by the social milieu of Bihar politics. Bihar is the one state where the deep socialisation of the JP and anti-Emergency movements had a lasting impact on the popular culture. Unlike in UP, even the Bihar BJP has often felt constrained by it and not managed the same degree of communal polarisation. This milieu has also created deep working relationships across party lines. Then there is the fascinating Lalu-Nitish relationship which has anchored state politics for decades. There is palpable mutual respect: Nitish is in awe of Lalu’s still persisting core base; Lalu appreciates Nitish’s popular presence.
By all accounts, Lalu had been favouring this tie-up for a long time, but was being resisted by Tejashwi. In some ways, this is an even more pivotal moment for Tejashwi. His ability to negotiate broad coalitions, work with a senior partner and yet hold his own and his governance instincts will be tested. So it will be interesting to see if this generational divide can be bridged and actually mobilised as a force in politics.
What are the consequences of this? The one lesson from Bihar is that if you don’t take contingency seriously you are not taking politics seriously. But here are three axes on which to think about the possible consequences.
The first is institutional. In a democracy, dispersion of power is important and there will be a temporary sigh of relief that the BJP does not have an imprint in one more state government. But this dispersion of power will be accompanied by the deepening crisis of institutions. In the short run, the BJP’s strategy in the east will involve two instruments: The use of CBI and ED to expose corruption, and then running with a narrative that regional leaders are self-serving, corrupt and narcissistic. This may not yield immediate dividends in the state. But it certainly tames the regional parties and puts a break on their ideological posturing and national ambition. The BJP has done that with the TMC, for example. So expect more Centre-state tussles on corruption and governance. For a variety of reasons, the “Modi is cleaning up the system” narrative still has resonance, not least because it satiates the conscience of some Modi voters, and gives them a pretext to vote for him.
The second dimension is the local social coalition. On the face of it, the new Nitish-led alliance is formidable. The new alliance is a broad spectrum of social groups: EBCs, Dalits, OBCs and minorities. In Bihar, at the margins, the Left and Congress vote still matters. Amit Shah is good at strategising three or more cornered contests. The climb is steeper when the Opposition is united. So the BJP can be pushed back in Bihar. But precisely this advantage, a broad social base, can become a disadvantage if not properly managed. Will there be enough power to share or goodies to distribute to manage this coalition? That no one from the JD-U has defected so far is an achievement. But almost all social groups are now electorally mobile.
In fact, this could also be an opportunity for the BJP to deepen its social base, by promising avenues of mobility to new leaders and groups rather than relying on old alliances. But this will not be easy in the short run. The BJP has many competent politicians and administrators but it does not have a credible state-level leader who enjoys commanding support in the party and outside. It is itself the object of an anti-incumbency sentiment. But it would be a mistake to assume that the possibility of a social churn or breaking away of sections of the coalition does not exist. In fact, the larger the coalition, the more likely sections can be weaned away.
The third dimension is national. Here there is reason to be sceptical. Even if the new coalition does well in the state, the BJP is still likely to retain a sizeable chunk of its Lok Sabha presence, where the absence of a single state leader will matter less. It is also likely that voters will distinguish a national from a state election. The very fact that Nitish is resorting to a “this is in the nation’s interest” narrative is a sign of weakness. He has very little appeal outside Bihar, where the opportunism is easier to project than social familiarity with him. And there is one lesson every chief minister aspiring for a national role needs to learn. You should be able to project your state as some kind of achievement story. But it is difficult for Nitish to foreground the Bihar story in any national narrative. His party does not itself have a strong organisation in Bihar, let alone nationally, and it is just hard to see him projecting the kind of energy that will be needed to take on Modi as a prime ministerial aspirant.
So the drama in Bihar is fascinating. In an age marked by polarisation and violence there is something reassuring about old-fashioned politics. But this is not a moment for euphoria, or a pathway to national regeneration.
The writer is Contributing Editor, The Indian Express