With Nitish Kumar comfortably winning the trust vote in the Bihar assembly on Friday, the political upheaval in the state has ended quickly. In a smart move last week, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), or JDU, came together to remove Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) from the seat of power in Patna. The BJP has come out as the biggest beneficiary. After having been trounced by the RJD-JDU-Congress grand alliance in 2015, it now shares power in the state, with its leader, Sushil Kumar Modi, as deputy chief minister.
Kumar remains the chief minister, and his heft in the ruling alliance will increase because his JDU,with 71 seats, is now the senior partner to the BJP (53 seats). In the grand alliance, the JDU had fewer seats than the RJD (80) and hence it was vulnerable. But such a framing ignores two important factors: (a) the BJP juggernaut in motion, and (b) the history of Kumar’s politics. At this moment, the BJP is on an unprecedented political upswing, capturing power in state after state. And after having switched alliances many times in his career, Kumar’s political space now stands constricted.
In 2013, Kumar had severed the alliance with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) once it was clear that Narendra Modi would be declared the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Kumar had then presented his opposition to Modi’s nomination as a principled fight for the cause of secularism.
However, after the drubbing at the hustings in 2014, he was ready to bend his principles on corruption to tie up with the RJD; Prasad had by then been convicted in a case of corruption. And now after fresh corruption charges have surfaced against the Yadav family, including Tejashwi Yadav, who served as Kumar’s deputy in the grand alliance government, Kumar has decided to bury the hatchet with the BJP.
Other than personal idiosyncrasies, Kumar’s 2013 decision was based, one can now conclude, on a serious underestimation of what Modi could achieve in national politics. Kumar’s national ambitions were not unknown. But having suffered the 2014 setback and witnessed the continuous political ascendancy thereafter of his former counterpart in Gujarat, he chose to consolidate the gains in Bihar and surrender to Modi’s national supremacy. For all the opportunism and hypocrisy of Indian politics, Kumar cannot now return to the grand alliance, and certainly not with his old bargaining power intact.
Kumar’s behaviour is similar to that of many other leaders of the potential third front. Their alliance decisions are driven less by ideology and more by the pursuit of power. In the 1970s and 1980s, regional leaders would gang up against the hegemony of the Congress, and now they are in a quest to build an anti-BJP alliance. The best example of their somersault kind of politics came to light in the 1990s: In 1996, the BJP was perceived to be too communal and it did not get enough allies to sustain the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government beyond 13 days; just two years later, the BJP was secular enough to gain close to two dozen allies.
But the current national political moment is more about Modi and the BJP and less about the Congress and regional leaders. The BJP has emerged as a giant of Indian politics. Among the 20 largest states, the BJP-led NDA holds the reins in states with close to 70% of the population. With Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP president, at the helm, the party has seized power in a number of states where it was hardly in contention just a few years ago. The biggest feather in the party’s cap was obviously Uttar Pradesh. Even if elections throw up a hung house, it is the BJP which invariably beats the Congress in cobbling together a majority, Goa and Manipur being cases in point.
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With this massive power-grabbing exercise, the BJP has created a demonstration effect where opportunistic politicians are choosing to defect to the party before the next election in their respective states. This effect can today be seen in states as diverse as Karnataka, Gujarat and Tripura. While the Congress did enjoy political hegemony in the early decades after independence, the politico-electoral machinery of the BJP today has hardly been witnessed in India before.
The BJP will also get a leg up in the Rajya Sabha, with the JDU joining the NDA ranks. And soon, the BJP will find itself running out of excuses if there is no significant ramp-up in the pace of economic reforms. But not just economic, for 2017 carries greater political and social import for India’s future than even 2014, when Modi came to power at the Centre with a margin not seen in the last three decades. For the first time in India’s history, a right-of-centre political party is enjoying a dominant status of this kind. The consequences will be realized in future but it is important to begin recognizing the spectrum of possibilities—good and bad.
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