If political gymnastics was an Olympic sport, then Nitish Kumar would undoubtedly be a strong contender for the gold medal. After being sworn in as Bihar chief minister for a record eighth time in 17 years, Nitish Kumar has shown himself to be the ultimate street-smart survivor, the serial somersaults and flip-flops now an intrinsic part of his political DNA. While the credibility deficit may have widened, his latest gambit also exposes the sheer desperation of the non-BJP opposition in fighting existential battles when confronted with a ruthlessly expansionist BJP juggernaut and its ‘opposition-mukt Bharat’ agenda.
Truthfully, Nitish Kumar’s decision to break with the BJP and join hands yet again with his ‘frenemies’ in Lalu Prasad and son Tejaswi is not a sign of any change in heart but primarily borne from the fear of the BJP slowly but surely eroding his Janata Dal (United) social and political base, an anxiety heightened by the BJP’s successful coup in Maharashtra. The JD (U) chieftain is not alone in his BJP phobia: in the last three years, the two other major 2019 BJP allies — the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena – have left the National Democratic Alliance fold while two others – the AIADMK and the Lok Janshakti (LJP) – are in the midst of internal upheaval. The Akalis quit the Modi government because they were shaken by the anti-Centre farm protests in Punjab; the Shiv Sena wanted a greater share in the power cake in Maharashtra. While the Akalis are a much weakened force, the Sena has since been split wide open.
In a sense, the NDA has ceased to exist and been replaced by an entirely new political animal: the BJP (Modi-Shah) or MS version. The NDA in its original avatar in the BJP (Advani-Vajpayee or AV) era was a large grouping of political parties whose identity revolved around a mix of fierce anti-Congressism and consensual Vajpayeeism: from the socialist George Fernandes to the mercurial Mamta Banerjee to the militant Hindutva flagbearer in Bal Thackeray, a range of leaders found space in the coalition. But since the BJP (MS) took over in 2014, the NDA has lost more than 20 allies, large and small. There is now not a single alliance partner of the BJP who has double digit seats in the Lok Sabha. What it reveals is the total dominance of the BJP (MS) in creating a distinct power shift in which the allies are almost inconsequential.
Perhaps, the speed and efficiency with which the BJP (MS) has moved to establish its supremacy has caught its older allies by surprise. In Bihar, the JD (U) was the senior partner in the relationship till the 2020 assembly elections when the BJP’s seats and strike rate was far greater than the JD (U). Reports that one-time NDA ally, Chirag Paswan was encouraged by the BJP leadership to put up candidates against the JD (U) only aggravated the sense of unease in relations. Ditto the case in Maharashtra where the Shiv Sena suddenly found itself relegated to a junior partner status, a situation that would have been unthinkable when party supremo, Bal Thackeray called the shots. Even the Akalis recognized that the BJP wouldn’t accord it the same status it once did when the redoubtable Parkash Singh Badal helmed the alliance. Not surprisingly, none of these allies were given more than a single cabinet berth each in the Modi government.
In the BJP (AV) period, the party was often dependent on these allies for gaining a foothold in key states. In Congress-dominated Maharashtra, for example, the BJP needed the Shiv Sena’s regional muscle to spread its wings. In Punjab, the Akalis Sikh identity broadened the BJP’s appeal. In the complex caste matrix of Bihar, the support of a ‘Mandalised’ force like the JD (U) allowed the BJP to move beyond its core upper caste support base in the state. But in the last decade, as the BJP (MS) has consciously built a very different social coalition led by Other Backward Castes, especially in the Hindi heartland, the dependence on allies has lessened. The imposing personality of prime minister Narendra Modi and the combative nature of an Amit Shah has meant that BJP (MS) allies are now intimidated and not comforted in the presence of the all-powerful duo. Those who can afford to strike out on their own have chosen diminished self-respect over complete surrender.
Which might explain a certain inevitability to Nitish Kumar’s latest break with the NDA. Kumar, after all, was the first NDA leader to challenge Mr Modi’s leadership in 2013 when the latter was elevated as the BJP’s election campaign committee chief. At the time Mr Modi had not even been formally announced as the BJP’s prime ministerial face but Kumar chose to break his 17 year old alliance, claiming that he would not compromise on his ‘secular’ credentials. When Kumar did return to the NDA fold in 2017 it was almost a tacit acceptance of his limitations in challenging the dramatic ascent of Modi but there is some evidence to suggest that the decision taken at the time was a reluctant one: in his 2018 memoir, Lalu Prasad claims that Nitish wanted to come back to the ‘maha-gatbandhan’ or Grand alliance within six months of his exit but that a lack of trust prevented a quick return.
In fact, Nitish Kumar’s predicament mirrors that of most regional party leaders today. The choices before these leaders are stark: either quietly accept the pre-eminent authority of the BJP (MS) leadership or else risk isolation and be hostage to the coercive powers of the central agencies. A Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Mohan Reddy seem to have strategically worked out a modus vivendi with the Centre. A Mamta Banerjee has been a more defiant voice but as her inexplicable decision to abstain from the vice-presidential vote has shown, she too is unwilling to risk an all-out war with the Modi government. As for the other dynastical regional parties, their ‘family fortunes’ are squarely on the BJP’s and Enforcement Directorate’s radar.
Bihar then could well be the final battleground between an imperious Centre and ageing but canny regional satraps. For now, Nitish Kumar may have bought some time with an audacious pre-emptive strike but a ‘betrayed’ BJP is unlikely to sit quietly. Will Patna be the next destination for the Enforcement Directorate to flex its muscle? Watch this space. Post-script: Tiny Goa perhaps best exemplifies how the BJP has changed its power equations with allies. In the 1990s, the BJP used the regional Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) to build a beach head in Goa. Today, the MGP is a marginal force in a BJP-led government. As an MGP leader admits ruefully, “We offered the BJP a share in our Hindu vote bank, they completed a hostile takeover.”