Parties of the Opposition joined together to observe Monday as the Jan Aakrosh Diwas, a day of protests against the Narendra Modi government’s policy of demonetisation, but the cracks showed through. The Congress, for instance, participated in the protests but did not approve of them taking the form of a bandh, even as the Left had called for a shutdown. Most conspicuously, however, two non-NDA chief ministers not only stayed away from the Opposition’s agitation, but also came out openly in support of the government’s campaign against black money. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has enjoyed visibly strained relations with the BJP ever since his party walked out of the JD(U)-BJP alliance in Bihar, who has lost no occasion to reiterate his ideological and political differences with the Modi-led BJP ever since, and who has made a bid to project himself as the rallying point for a wider, national-level unity of non-BJP parties, has supported the Modi government’s ban on Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. So has Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, whose party was also once allied with the BJP and who most recently raged against the BJP-led Centre because of its alleged bias towards Chhattisgarh and against Odisha on the Mahanadi water dispute. That Patnaik and Kumar have broken ranks with the Opposition now to support a decision of a regime they have opposed prominently brings on an interesting political moment.
It could be that their support on demonetisation signals an impending political realignment, that it bodes a rethink on the part of Kumar and Patnaik of the wisdom of estrangement from the party that rules the Centre. It could be that both chief ministers have made the strategic calculation that their opposition to the BJP on this particular policy could end up hurting the anti-corruption credentials they have assiduously courted so far. Or it could be what Kumar and Patnaik say it is: A principled stand. Whatever be the reason, their stepping out of the Opposition box in this instance is a useful reminder of the complexity of India’s political matrix and a note of caution against the tendency to take a too-tidy view of its politics. In a diverse and federal system, the political calculus varies from player to player. And then, for every player, it changes with time, locale and level of politics and government among other variables.
The Modi government has often been accused, and deservedly so, of drawing blunt lines and imposing a repressive with-us-against-us division on the political field. By ascribing motives to Kumar and Patnaik’s support to the BJP on demonetisation, or by treating it as scandalous, the Opposition would be doing to itself what it often accuses the government of doing to others.