Lead

A blend of chalk and cheese

Desperation could lead to misplaced optimism in politics. Perhaps, one such instance is seen in the enthusiasm around Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad’s willingness to accept Nitish Kumar’s leadership in an >emerging alliance of the Janata Dal (United), the Congress and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar. The alliance has turned out to spell renewed hope for >those who are eager to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi suffer some kind of a setback.

Axiomatic as it may be, politics is all about chemistry and little about arithmetic. The social chemistry of a Lalu-Nitish-Congress combination is such that it is certain to create a lot of gas and noise, but may not necessarily lead to any political alchemy that will add new shine to the soulless and clichéd narratives on offer against Mr. Modi’s politics.

The Nitish model

Undoubtedly, Nitish Kumar remains the central character of Bihar politics as he possesses attributes that make him acceptable to a majority. His politics and style combine social justice and good governance. As Chief Minister since 2005, he has extended the idioms of empowerment to groups ignored and even oppressed by an earlier variant of Mandal politics steered by Mr. Prasad. Simultaneously, he has improved the delivery of government services and maintaining law and order. His politics of social justice has not only merely succeeded Lalu’s, but also transcended it. As he once put it succinctly, “Lalu ji asked people to carry lathis, I urge them to use the pen.” The Lalu version represented subaltern lumpenism that led to a collapse of governance; by contrast, the Nitish model made social empowerment market-oriented.

In Mr. Kumar, all non-Yadav backward castes found a redeemer of their hopes that had been belied by Lalu. The upper castes — who had stalled his projection as Chief Minister in the February 2005 Assembly election — realised that none among them could be Chief Minister ever and rooted for Mr. Kumar in October the same year. In him, they found a moderate and non-threatening backward caste leader as opposed to an antagonistic Lalu. By 2010, a good chunk of Muslims too gravitated towards him, and he won a second term. In alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he did exceedingly well in the 2009 Lok Sabha election too.

Political blunders

As he soared high, Mr. Kumar lost sight of the ground and made his first political blunder — snapping ties with the BJP at an inopportune time, ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections. He thought his opposition to Mr. Modi’s projection as Prime Minister would have the State’s nearly 17 per cent Muslim population flocking to him. But as Mr. Modi turned 2014 into a referendum on himself, neither Muslims nor backwards considered Mr. Kumar; and those opposed to Mr. Modi voted for Mr. Prasad’s RJD.

Then, Mr. Kumar made his second mistake — appointing Jitan Ram Manjhi, a Mahadalit, as the Chief Minister of the State, in an attempt to buttress his credentials as the champion of the downtrodden. He hoped that Mr. Manjhi would be the Bihar version of Tamil Nadu’s O. Panneerselvam, who had kept the chair warm for his leader to return as the Chief Minister of the State. Mr. Manjhi charted his own course and questioned Mr. Kumar’s commitment to Mahadalits. Outwitted, Mr. Kumar wrested the Chief Minister’s chair from Mr. Manjhi, but not before bruising his own image in the process.

As Mr. Kumar starts a fresh bid to retain Bihar, the situation is not hopeless for him, but only if he remembers the adage — that fortune favours the brave. If he decides to take a bold gamble and make the forthcoming elections a referendum on himself — as Mr. Modi did in 2014 and Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi early this year — he could expect similar results. Like Mr. Kumar, Mr. Kejriwal too had been routed in Delhi in May 2014.

With his governance credentials taken for granted, the variables in the next election are caste alignments; here, Mr. Kumar has a tremendous advantage. He can be the refuge for upper caste voters who feel short-changed by Mr. Modi’s BJP; he can also be the factor of reassurance for all sections of backwards and Dalits, and a majority of Muslims. If the defining question of this election is framed around whether one is for or against Mr. Kumar, a majority of all castes and communities will be in his favour. Ek bar phir se, Nitish (another term for Nitish) will be a slogan that will resonate in the State. An alliance with the Congress and the Left will cement that social alignment.

Risks before an alliance

But an alliance with Mr. Prasad, which Nitish Kumar thinks is the safe path, is fraught with grave risks. The upper castes will see this alliance as the re-entry of the Lalu regime on the sly and instead remain in the BJP’s embrace; weaker sections of backwards, i.e. almost all non-Yadavs and Dalits will fear the repeat of unfavourable terms of engagement in power sharing as it used to be under Mr. Prasad and also lean to the BJP, as they did in 2014. With Mr. Kumar’s Kurmi caste being insignificant numerically, the response from the Yadavs and Muslims will define the alliance.

Muslims will be the only social section that will wholeheartedly root for the Nitish-Lalu alliance but that will create a problem not only for the alliance but also for the polity in general. Bihar today is sharply polarised on communal lines. In fact the outcome in the Bhagalpur Lok Sabha constituency in 2014 tells the sad story of deep-running, communal sentiment in the State. Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, who used to win that seat on a BJP ticket even in ‘normal conditions’, lost in 2014 when the alliance led by the party won 31 of the 40 seats in the State, riding on the Modi wave. In August 2014, when Mr. Prasad and Mr. Kumar joined hands, they managed to win six of the 10 seats in Assembly by-elections, but the two Muslim candidates they had were defeated.

An aggressive Muslim consolidation behind the Nitish-Lalu-Congress alliance will make it vulnerable to the accusation that it is being propped up by Muslims, which can cause a Hindu reaction — a polarisation that will be advantageous for the BJP. Therefore, contrary to what many “secularists” think, what Mr. Kumar needs is a diffused Muslim response rather than their consolidation.

What can one expect from the Yadavs, if the coalition actually moves forward and reaches the stage of an agreement on seat-sharing? Local strongmen aligned with Mr. Prasad, when denied seats because of the alliance, will migrate to the BJP; the party anyway requires a lot of candidates as it prepares to contest more than 200 seats for the first time. The same applies to Mr. Kumar too. To assume that all or a majority of the Yadavs are with Mr. Prasad is no longer valid in Bihar. In fact, in the Lok Sabha election, in the Pataliputra seat, Union Minister Ram Kripal Yadav — who was Lalu’s confidant until a few weeks earlier — defeated Mr. Prasad’s daughter, while in the neighbouring Chhapra seat, Mr. Prasad’s wife, Rabri Devi bit the dust. As a community, Yadavs may well be yearning for the return of ‘Lalu Raj’, but if asked to choose between the BJP and Mr. Kumar, a majority will go to the former. Therefore, while there is not going be any Yadav consolidation behind the alliance, such a possibility will actually scare away the other castes.

BJP strategy

From then on, the contest will depend on how the BJP plays its cards. If the BJP goes to the polls without projecting a leader, it will be a confusing situation like in February 2005 — the upper castes will fear the emergence of a strong-headed backward caste leader within the BJP, while the backward castes will fear a domineering upper caste leader at the helm. But still, communal polarisation could work in the BJP’s favour, against the Nitish-Lalu alliance.

If the BJP projects a non-threatening backward caste leader, such as Sushil Modi, it will set the stage for a social coalition of all caste groups, including a considerable section of the Yadavs. The slogan, ‘ Dilli mein Modi, Bihar mein bhi Modi’ could generate a mix of Mandal and Hindutva politics that will derail the Nitish-Lalu alliance. Getting the upper castes to accept Sushil Modi will take some effort, but Arun Jaitley had done that for Nitish Kumar in 2005.

Friends are good, but leaders are those who walk alone when the situation demands. Now at a crossroads, Mr. Kumar will have to decide whether the baggage of a dispensable legacy could burden his journey. Two consecutive political blunders — the first, of parting with the BJP, and the second, of propping up Mr. Manjhi — may be leading him into committing a third.

The political security that he hopes to achieve by propitiating the ghost of a brand of social justice politics that has been long dead and rotten is delusional. A coalition between Mr. Kumar and Mr. Prasad on the common platform of “social justice and secularism” would be almost akin to N.R. Narayana Murthy and B. Ramalinga Raju floating a joint venture to boost the software industry! Mr. Prasad said the alliance was like swallowing poison, and that he was willing to do it. Mr. Kumar could decide that for himself.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 11:06:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/a-blend-of-chalk-and-cheese/article7326420.ece

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