Nitish Kumar is the last of the politically active and physically robust survivors of the Mandal versus Kamandal war of the 1990s
What Nitish Kumar pulled off in Bihar through a flawlessly executed political manoeuvre against the BJP and its top leadership is like a thunderbolt out of the blue. All that Nitish Kumar has to do now is revive the Indian political imagination, of voters and political parties by recalling Jayaprakash Narayan’s unfinished movement of establishing social justice through a “Sampoorna Kranti”, or Total Revolution.
Nitish Kumar’s rebirth as an anti-BJP politician matters. It matters to the BJP. It matters to the caste-based regional parties that are the main opposition to the BJP in the Hindi heartland and to the Congress. It matters above all to the Samajwadi Party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), all of whom emerged from the Jayaprakash Narayan movement and then established themselves as the pillars of Mandal politics that recognised the discrimination and deprivation of the Other Backward Castes.
Nitish Kumar is the last of the politically active and physically robust survivors of the Mandal versus Kamandal war of the 1990s.Through all the years of his alliance with the BJP in Bihar, he has successfully shepherded the small but important Kurmi votes and held off encroachments by the predatory BJP, which has worked tirelessly to shift the OBC and Extremely Backward Caste voters to its side. By dumping the BJP, Nitish Kumar has signalled to OBC and EBC voters that they need to rethink on giving support to the other side. His disclaimer, immediately after he took the oath of office as Bihar’s CM for the eighth time, that he was not pitching for a new role in national politics, may be the embodiment of humility, but it is not truthful.
In the Hindi heartland, where the BJP believes its support is baked rock solid through its management of OBC-Dalit identities and its majoritarian Hindutva agenda that “others” the Muslim minority and permits Uttar Pradesh’s second-term chief minister Yogi Adityanath to declare that the recently-concluded election in the state was a contest between 80 (per cent Hindu) versus 20 (per cent Muslim), Nitish Kumar’s new alliance will set off political tremors. It will be disturbing and potentially destabilising.
Having cut himself loose from the “oppressive restraints” of the BJP, Nitish Kumar is and has been a persistent and audible champion of caste demographics. His demand for a caste census as part of the national census has been a thorn in Narendra Modi’s side. The repeated postponement of a full-fledged national census by the Narendra Modi government on the excuse that it could not be unrolled while the Covid-19 pandemic was still a threat is also an indication that the head count, including a caste-based head count, is an avoidable decision. There is every reason to think that Nitish Kumar will again raise the demand for a caste census, and this time he has the freedom to turn it into a campaign that would unify groups and parties that represent OBCs, EBCs and others.
This makes Nitish Kumar a potentially dangerous destabilising force. He may not, as yet, feel up to joining in the rough and tumble of anti-BJP Opposition politics at the national level, but he is fully aware of the effect of his switch. His deliberately cryptic comment on the chances of Narendra Modi returning to power in 2024 was aimed at delivering a challenge and testing his position in the Opposition political space.
For starters, Nitish Kumar is not cooped up any longer. He has a national stature. And Bihar, even though it is Hindi-speaking, is culturally different from the rest of the heartland. What happens in Bihar has great significance outside the state, partly because of the migrant population and partly because it is a state with a distinctive identity.
The Bihar “Mahagatbandhan” is a rainbow of anti-BJP forces, with the Congress in the middle and the CPI(M-L) at the other end. It spans the different ideologies that together constitute the middle ground, bookended by the BJP as defender on the Right and the Left as the last but not least challenger. The message that is Bihar can be read in other ways too.
Voters across India, certainly in Bihar and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, will take note that Nitish Kumar dumped the BJP and installed himself as the head of an ideologically very different alliance, without fuss and the vulgar display of money as power. It was a neat, fast and clean operation. It was frugal. It was austere and it was superlatively efficient. There were no private jets flying around the country; there were no resorts or hotels booked for would-be defectors. None of the 164 Bihar state Assembly legislators backing the new alliance were spirited away, not even on buses. The contrast between the over one week-long drama in Maharashtra, where all that the voter saw was MLAs locked up in a luxury hotel in Assam, and then in Goa, while the Shiv Sena collapsed and Uddhav Thackeray’s chief ministerial stint ended conveys a deeper message. Regional parties can hit back and resist dismemberment by the BJP.
Underestimating Nitish Kumar and his ability to survive may be the biggest miscalculation that the BJP has made in recent times. Unable to come up with an adequate response, the BJP top brass has deployed its backbenchers, Bihar’s former deputy chief minister and credible leader Sushil Modi, Ravi Shankar Prasad and state leaders to take down Nitish Kumar for his disloyalty, his betrayal of the electoral mandate of 2020, by changing sides. The big bosses of the world’s largest party, Amit Shah, Narendra Modi and even party president J.P. Nadda, have been offline and absolutely speechless.
There is a reason why the BJP is taking time to recover from the blow delivered by Nitish Kumar. The BJP lost its largest ally in terms of the seats the JD(U) occupies in the two Houses of Parliament, and it is a big hit. Despite the friction between the BJP and Janata Dal (United), Nitish Kumar was indispensable as an ally. He punched way above his weight in Bihar politics, even though he won only 45 Assembly seats out of 243. He helped the BJP to win 77 seats and cleared the space the party needed to set up shop in Bihar.
Even if the “Mahagatbandhan” falls apart as it did in 2017, it will have triggered a new phase in the run-up to the 2024 general election and the BJP’s ferocious efforts to ensure another win for Mr Modi.