For the impending assembly election, it seems a coalition for “social justice” has finally been crafted in Bihar. If it turns out to be authentic, it will be a benchmark development in the region. For the first time in recent memory, Lalu Prasad will be transcending a family-centric script to a strategy, even if it is primarily driven by political exigency. Even though the ideological foundation of the coalition is rather opaque and brittle for now, it may still send a powerful message to those parties of the Hindi heartland to reinvent themselves that were earlier oscillating between the democratisation of power on the one hand and family-oriented politics on the other.
Even though the initial brinkmanship stalled the announcement of the leader of the coalition, backroom manoeuvring finally clinched the deal for Nitish Kumar. This was not an easy task as Lalu, apart from promoting his family, also had to deal with a number of important leaders within his party who had sounded a discordant note on Nitish. But Nitish’s track record and probity turned out to be his most powerful weapon. The Congress, after almost a year of hibernation and having undergone a massive drubbing in the sister state of Jharkhand, also played a positive role in clinching the Bihar coalition.
One has to remember here that the relationship between Lalu and Nitish is now three decades old. Thus, even after acrimonious relations for almost a decade, they had no problem in coming together immediately after the 2014 parliamentary election. Now, if the Bihar experiment succeeds, Nitish will be the inevitable face of the opposition in the 2019 parliamentary election.
After years of sloth and non-performance of the Congress at the Centre, particularly in the UPA’s second innings, Narendra Modi injected a muscular idiom into the national discourse. Popular discontent and restlessness had mounted over the years and India installed Modi as prime minister with only 31 per cent vote. But with the emergence of Arvind Kejriwal, till recently inexperienced in politics, the grammar of electoral politics had to change in India. Kejriwal brought with himself a whole range of educated, dynamic and young professionals, who wanted to script the national discourse from the front.
These are times when the 24×7 electronic media is subjecting the political class to unprecedented scrutiny. Even a minor faux pas attracts recurring coverage. In this changed complexion of politics, even Rahul Gandhi appears more energetic and coherent than before. And the BJP had to co-opt several leaders with an amiable exterior, even if without any political capital, to supplement its core leadership. Politics and its projection have, indeed, changed.
Even though urbanisation is limited in Bihar and the state’s aspirational class is smaller in relation to other states, the social coalition in Bihar will have to be crafted carefully. The “coalition of extremes” that was successfully led by Nitish in his earlier innings, had brought the marginal and the powerful onto a common platform. Even if Nitish had not broken up with the BJP, that coalition could not have possibly continued any further, because the concurrent pursuit of the interests of the elite and the destitute cannot go on for long. Sooner or later, strategies of development cast intolerable stress on such an alliance. Not surprisingly, in Bihar, positive discrimination in panchayats and
an inclusive policy for the marginalised cast enormous strain on the JD(U)-BJP coalition. The clear reverse in the Maharajganj parliamentary by-election, for instance, was not a flash in the pan. To overcome the social strain, Nitish Kumar did try to build sub-national cohesion from above, but its impact was limited because, unlike in other states, the nascent sub-nationalism in Bihar was not preceded by either a social movement or any land reform.
With his top-down approach to democratisation and governance, and in the absence of a commensurate party structure, the marginalised within the coalition were bound to get further relegated. Thus Nitish Kumar and the BJP gradually moved towards greater antagonism and contradiction. They could not go very far together on the sub-national agenda. On the other hand, the contradiction between Nitish and Lalu was always a non-antagonistic one. Thus, the political axis of Nitish-Lalu, once it gets translated on the ground, can potentially weave an alternative model of a coalition of the marginalised.
This coalition will not be a pushover, if it sincerely follows the script of inclusion and enjoys the backup support of the powerful middle castes. But its agenda has to go beyond “social democratisation” to include authentic development. With a development agenda that is already in place and a social justice agenda to supplement it, the coalition could facilitate the emergence of a capitalist economy in Bihar, as it has unfolded in most of the southern, western and northern Indian states. The “special category status” or at least investment and tax concessions, as given to Andhra Pradesh, could be extended to Bihar. This will create a base for private capital in Bihar, notwithstanding its limitation as a landlocked state.
However, despite the euphoria in the JD(U)-RJD-Congress camp, the BJP should not be underestimated. The BJP has not reached its plateau, and it was part of the NDA coalition when Nitish executed the development miracle in Bihar. As ministers in the Nitish government, a number of its leaders have been groomed in governance and development. Even though its upper-caste base forms the rock solid foundation of the BJP, backward and marginalised groups are not anathema to the party, even before the famed intervention of party president Amit Shah; Sushil Modi is also identified with the backward constituency. The overwhelming Muslim support to theLalu-Nitish-Congress coalition may also lead to a counter-mobilisation of Hindus in favour of the BJP. Thus, the BJP may build upon its “counter-coalition of extremes” as manifest in the recent parliamentary election. With the Central government at its command, it also has more space for manoeuvre.
Thus, if the Nitish-Lalu coalition has to succeed, it has to be authentic, not a counterfeit one. The authenticity of the coalition will be revealed when the time comes for seat distribution.
The writer is member secretary, Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), Patna.
This story appeared in print under the headline: Social justice, the sequel