That Nitish Kumar has severely dented the prospects of a broader opposition unity for the 2019 elections is quite clear for everyone to see.
What is not so obvious is that Nitish’s act of political betrayal may have compromised an evolving alternative narrative around the economic failures of the NDA – growing unemployment , farmers’ unrest – occurring against the shameful backdrop of increasing social violence that recently forced Prime Minister Narendra Modi to condemn widespread vigilante violence, mostly in BJP ruled states, linked to cattle slaughter and minority baiting in general.
Nitish’s resignation over the corruption charges against the Lalu Prasad Yadav family will help Modi and Amit Shah bring corruption allegations against the opposition back to centre stage. The CBI, ED and other investigative agencies are helping build an unprecedented campaign that only opposition leaders are corrupt while the ruling party, at the Centre and states, is squeaky clean. The prime minister lost no time in congratulating Nitish for his “stand against corruption” . This is hollow because the prime minister hasn’t had the courage to say the same about his own party’s chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Rajasthan who are mired in serious corruption charges, which the CBI has hardly had any time to look at.
Nitish has helped the BJP in two important ways. One, by raising the tempo of the ‘anti-corruption’ campaign against the opposition parties. And two, by diluting his own’s party’s stated position that the JD(U) would never join hands with the BJP because the latter had formally decided to press ahead with the divisive Hindutva agenda like the construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya and the abrogation of Article 370, which accords a special status to Kashmir.
Only three weeks ago, senior JD(U) leader and party spokesperson K.C. Tyagi told The Wire in an interview that there was no chance his party would ever go back to work with BJP simply because “We were with Vajpayee’s NDA only because the alliance had kept out contentious issues like building Ram Temple in Ayodhya, Uniform Civil Code and abrogation of Article 370 out of the agenda. The present BJP, with a majority at Centre and in Uttar Pradesh, is pursuing these very aggressively. So purely on ideological principles we will never go with BJP”.
Tyagi further invoked Ram Manohar Lohia to suggest that the socialist stalwart whose worldview apparently guided the JD(U) was totally opposed to Hindutva majoritarianism and would never have approved of the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva policies under Modi. So what happened over the past three weeks that has made Tyagi and his party leader abandon Lohia and his principles so wantonly?
It is clear that personal ambitions have trumped high principles. It is true that the personal ambition of leaders plays a big role in politics but there is always a veneer of political correctness within which such betrayals happen. Nitish has failed in this test because the so-called sacrifice of his post has been swiftly followed by his elevation to the same chair with the help of the BJP – which had comprehensively lost the people’s mandate in the 2015 Bihar assembly election.
The least Nitish could have done was to call for fresh elections to test whether the people of Bihar approve of the dramatic change in his political and ideological stance.
As for Modi and Shah, they would be greatly thrilled that the BJP has won back Bihar after losing it so badly. Having Bihar in their control in the run up to the 2019 general elections is crucial because the party’s foundation for a majority in the Lok Sabha comes from seven Hindi heartland states – UP, Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand, which return over 205 Lok Sabha members. It is in these states that the BJP’s majoritarian Hindutva politics is more sharply focused around issues such as the Ram Temple and the anti-beef campaign. In a way, Nitish will provide additional legitimacy to this politics even if this means Lohia turning in his grave.
The opposition, led by a confused, even bewildered, Congress party, will have to go back to the drawing board to review how it must respond to the political dynamics developing in the cow belt where the BJP is tightening its vice-like grip. Besides the underlying Hindutva messaging, the combination of a ‘backward’ caste prime minister and a Dalit president will surely be projected with vigour in this belt. The fusing of ‘Mandal’ with ‘kamandal’ was still at a somewhat experimental stage in the 2014 general elections. In 2019, the BJP will try to launch the biggest ever assault on the vote base of powerful backward and Dalit leaders like Lalu, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati in Bihar and UP. Nitish’s ‘ghar wapsi’ may surely help BJP in this grand political project.