Nitish’s naked pragmatism

But he had few options other than the political realignment

August 03, 2017 12:15 am | Updated June 22, 2019 01:49 pm IST

The parting of ways between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad was inevitable. There were enough indications in the past few months of Mr. Kumar’s increasing discomfort with the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar and the Congress - led opposition at the national level. Thus, the question really was: how soon would the fraternal love between two Bihari brothers unravel?

Many have rightly criticised Mr. Kumar’s swift political somersault while still claiming the moral high ground by arguing that his action was necessitated by the Yadav family’s failure to explain the recent charges of corruption. His action was naked pragmatism, that is to retain power, but the words he used in support of his action were of politics, principles, and ethics.

Notwithstanding the question of pragmatism and principles, anyone who is in the business of electoral politics must focus on the cardinal rule of the game: how to create and retain a majority? To be clear, we are not justifying all the means that are adopted to remain in power. But what was the option for Mr. Kumar? A politician less than half his age (whose sole claim to power was being the heir apparent) was continuously interfering with his decisions and governance style, RJD strongman Mohammad Shahabuddin upon his release from Bhagalpur jail refused to accept him as a leader, and Mr. Kumar realised that his own social base was not very happy with his decision to break the alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and join hands with Mr. Prasad.

Mr. Kumar had five options: continue with the RJD without any altercation; suspend Tejashwi Yadav and wait for the RJD’s reaction; resign and let someone else take the charge (from the RJD or his own party?); walk out of the coalition and call for a fresh election by dissolving the Assembly; or align with the BJP. Of course, the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is a different party, but if one thinks about how each of these options would have played out, the best course of action for Mr. Kumar was what he ended up doing.

His primary concern may have been to remain the Chief Minister (without the daily woes from the Yadav clan), but equally important is the realisation that his own voter base was and remains at loggerheads with Mr. Prasad’s base. The mutual distrust between the core constituencies of these two leaders (Kurmi-Koeris and Yadavs) was at the heart of why Mr. Kumar rebelled against Mr. Prasad in 1994 and formed the Samata Party. The animosity between these groups was evident even when they had reunited during the 2015 Assembly elections. We had shown in a piece in this newspaper at the time, using data from opinion polls conducted in 2014 by Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, that the RJD voters and the Yadavs were not very fond of Mr. Kumar, and the Janata Dal (United) voters and Kurmis had a similar perception about Mr. Prasad (“Good arithmetic, but no chemistry,” September 23, 2015).

Similarly, data from the pre-poll survey conducted a month before the Assembly election showed that Mr. Kumar’s core support base did not approve of his decision to break the alliance with the BJP in 2013. Neither were they in favour of aligning with the RJD, as we found out in the post-poll survey (in graphic).

Equally important was the consideration that the RJD’s better showing in the 2015 election despite contesting similar number of seats was largely due to an unequal transfer of voter base between the two allies. The alliance polled three-fourths of Yadav votes on the seats contested by the RJD, but only 59% of the Yadavs voted the alliance on seats contested by the JD(U). On the other hand, the difference in voting patterns among the Kurmis and Mahadalits was marginal.

It must have been obvious to Mr. Kumar then that he was unlikely to gain electorally by sticking with the RJD, leave alone the mirage of emerging as the opposition’s candidate at the national level in 2019. His next best option was to retain the majority he has carefully cultivated over a decade. The decision to move out of the Mahagathbandhan, as evident from the graphic, is likely to be a popular step among non-RJD voters.

Mr. Kumar’s decision to re-ally with the BJP is undoubtably naked pragmatism. But can someone suggest what other alternative he had and what ethics of politics he would have served by sticking to the suggested alternative?

Rahul Verma

Pranav Gupta

Rahul Verma and Pranav Gupta are with Lokniti-CSDS and PhD candidates at Travers Department of Political Science, University of California at Berkeley, U.S.

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