From the week that Nitish Kumar took over as NDA chief minister of Bihar in 2005 — and from far before Narendra Modi intervened — a piece on how long his unnatural alliance with the BJP could last
At the heart of the JD(U)-BJP alliance is a virulent anti-Lalooism. Now that their implacable foe has been quelled, will the combination crumble under the weight of its contradictions?
For a sense of where this massive mandate may have landed Nitish Kumar, perhaps this vignette from the recent past. Gandhi Maidan, Patna, staging post of many a momentous turn in our times — Indira Gandhi rallying opinion to wage the liberation of Bangladesh, the frail forefinger of Jayaprakash Narain risen to undo the Mighty Indira and her Emergency, an inspired Laloo Yadav sworn in to do what JP had left unachieved.
But this is Gandhi Maidan on November 16, the penultimate day of canvassing for the Bihar elections and the NDA’s final show of strength against the entrenched Laloo Yadav. A lesser battle, a lesser stage, a lesser audience. But in the immediate context, a moment momentous enough. These men had come storming Laloo’s castle several times in the past and each time they had been repulsed, one way or the other. This was a now-or-never moment.
Star of the show, general of the battle: Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United). On his flanks, his allies, leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani, Uma Bharti, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Sushil Modi, Shahnawaz Hussain, Hukumdeo Narayan Yadav, Nand Kishore Yadav, Ravi Shankar Prasad, arm still in a sling from that gun assault. This was meant to be an NDA affair, a joint rally. Was there another leader from the JD(U) on stage? No. Did the stage sport JD(U) colours? No. There was the odd JD(U) flag held aloft in the audience but none courtesy the organisers.
Symbolic of what is to come? Or mere happenstance that the spearhead of the challenge — and now chief minister — found himself swamped by saffron at the peak of the campaign?
Nitish Kumar rode the show as unanimously agreed alternative to Rabri Devi, the BJP was upfront in stating that loud and clear. And now that the arithmetic of elections too has gone firmly in favour of Nitish, the BJP is in no position to dispute his skippership of the alliance even if it wanted to. The JD(U) has bagged nearly 90 seats, the BJP 55. So, for the record, everything is straight.
But scratch beneath, and you are likely to sense a spring in the BJP step that is out of sync with their “chhota-bhai” status in Bihar. They think it’s their victory. Their money (“What did the poor JD-U have to put in it?). Their strategy (Arun Jaitley). Their masterstroke (“Who decided to project Nitish Kumar as chief minister ahead of the campaign?) The problem will arise if they begin to think Nitish Kumar is their chief minister, his government their government.
If there was one thing that stained the flush of the NDA’s runaway victory in Bihar, it was the question: Can Nitish and the BJP pull along? And if they can, for how long? Both Nitish and the BJP leaders brushed apprehensions aside — we’ve fought as a team, we’ve been a team long enough, there is no reason why we cannot carry on as a team. Pushed, Nitish Kumar erected a new, logical enough wall. “Why are you presupposing our failure to remain a cohesive coalition? We have won together, we have to work together, let us first script a common minimum programme, we will proceed on that.”
But the questions linger, and not without reason. The JD(U)-BJP combine is a coalition of contrary aspirations, at least in Bihar where it is about to be tested.
Nitish Kumar has vociferously espoused the cause of what is essentially the Mandal-secular constituency — the lower and more populous half of backwards, popularly known as the extremely backward castes (EBCs) and the lower and untended half of Muslims. Both had gone ignored under Laloo Yadav’s creamy-layer Mandalism, where the goods were cornered by influential Yadavs and Muslims.
The BJP, in contrast, essentially rallied the upper castes on the promise of return of lost influence. They chafed under 15 years of Laloo Raj. Suddenly, their pre-eminence was snatched, suddenly they were paper feudals, suddenly all they had cornered over the centuries was gone, or going — land, jobs, contracts, the strings of influence, the seats of power, political or bureaucratic. Here, now, was a real chance to stage a comeback. Nitish’s EBCs and Muslims were willing allies, let’s piggyback.
Sure enough, there was a tactical convergence of interest between the two far-end constituencies. Both wanted Laloo Yadav out. But now that this limited end has been achieved, can they pull along any further?
The Indian experience of coalitions, particularly the north Indian experience, is not particularly encouraging, especially not those that have come together in a desperate bid to dislodge a more potent enemy. The most illustrious—or infamous— of such was the Janata experiment of 1977, a conglomerate bound by its opposition to Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, a set that was lost on an agenda beyond. Anti-Congressism was the war cry of one era. Then it became anti-BJP/RSS. In Bihar, it has been purely anti-Laloo. Laloo-hatao has been the priority of his opponents, but have they thought out the beyond. In the words of one seasoned Patna observer, Nitish Kumar is like the “brilliant trapeze artist who has managed the great leap but has landed on the tightrope”. Can he ride it?
The upper caste constituency — essentially the vote the BJP has brought into power — is an over-eager constituency; it has been waiting for its hour to arrive a long time. It can turn perverse with its demands in the feudal heartland — the angered Bhumihar of the Ranvir Sena in central Bihar, to begin with — and it can get pushy in Patna. Plum postings, the most lucrative contracts, an inverted way of seeing governance. The Laloo Yadav era was anathema for the upper castes. They want the whole system reversed to the pre-1990 norm.
Is Nitish Kumar going to be able to soak in a backlash to the Jehanabad jailbreak? Will he let the BJP dominate the bureaucracy and governance at large? And if he does, what face will he have to show to the EBCs and Muslims who went with him? Knowing Nitish Kumar, any insult to his constituency will insult him and he will not bear with that for long. Wonder what will come first — the BJP’s domination or Nitish Kumar’s impatience with it.