Since July 27, when, within the space of 14 hours, Nitish Kumar broke the JD(U)-RJD government in Bihar and formed a new one with the BJP, his ally-turned-archenemy-turned-ally, the country has been convulsed by speculation about the motives for his actions. Nitish has said that he could not, in good faith, remain allied to a government whose leaders were being indicted for receiving favours and kickbacks, and laundering vast sums of money though shell companies day after day, while refusing to say or do anything in their defence, without completely losing the trust of the Bihar electorate.
His key adviser and spokesperson, Pawan Verma has, however, given a second, entirely different explanation: Nitish joined the BJP only after months of failed effort by him to create a much more broad-based alliance of opposition parties, around national issues and not just caste arithmetic. The single stumbling block on all issues was a clueless, leaderless but immensely arrogant Congress party, which would not allow any joint initiative to take off unless it was seen to be its architect.
When the opposition failed to come together and speak with one voice on any issue, whether the choice of a presidential candidate or the developing tragedy in Kashmir, Nitish lost hope and concluded that a fractured opposition would make the Narendra Modi bandwagon unstoppable. This forced him to put national politics on the back burner and concentrate on shoring up his position in Bihar.
Both explanations are plausible, but do not provide sufficient justification for the enormity of his betrayal. Nitish could not but have known that the people of Bihar are not shocked by accusations of corruption. They have seen, and lived through, much worse; they know that Bihar politics is awash in crime and that even Nitish’s party has its share of indicted criminals. What they wanted was a government that held itself accountable to the people for its actions, and they had one. The release of Mohammed Shahabuddin had shaken that confidence but it was restored when he was sent back to jail on other grounds. There was no sign of popular dissatisfaction with the RJD-JD(U) combine, just as there were no expressions of joy when the BJP was brought back into the government.
On the other hand, the CBI’s chargesheet against Tejaswi Yadav reeked of political vendetta because he was only 14, and therefore a minor, when Lalu Prasad Yadav allegedly took kickbacks for awarding a railway catering contract in exchange for prime land in Patna. He could not therefore be tried now for any involvement, if one even existed, in a crime that took place 13 years ago.
Nitish also knew that the Modi government had been systematically using the law, and the infirmities of judicial procedure, to target and destroy those it sees as its principal adversaries in 2019. He knew that the BJP was abusing the machinery of the government to destroy the democratic system by taking advantage of the vulnerability of political parties and leaders who are forced to raise funds through clandestine means because of the absence of a legal system of electoral financing, to knock them out of the race for power in 2019. He must have known that he, along with Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and Mamata Banerjee in Bengal, were at the top of the BJP’s hit list.
How much would it have cost him to stick by the grand alliance, to expose the machinations of Modi and Amit Shah, and to promise the people sweeping reforms when an opposition government came to power in Delhi that would enact state funding of elections and thus cut the roots of the corrupt and criminalised political system we have in the country today?
Nitish could have seized the opportunity provided by the attack on the grand alliance to turn the tables on the BJP and start reforming the Indian democracy, without which the country has no future. But instead he chose to surrender to Modi behind a transparent veil of sanctimonious rhetoric.
The damage he has done is literally incalculable. Not only has he wrecked the coalition in Bihar, but he has also wrecked the possibility that an issue-based alliance of opposition parties, wedded to safeguarding the religious pluralism and ethnic diversity of the country, will emerge in time to challenge Modi’s rampant Hindu majoritarianism in 2019. With Nitish having become a pariah and the Left front now virtually without a power base, there is no leader left who is capable of acting as the catalyst for bringing the opposition together. The two key states that could have made all the difference were Bihar (with 40 seats in the Lok Sabha) and Uttar Pradesh (with 80 seats). The Bihar assembly elections had shown what opposition unity can achieve, while UP showed what disunity can mean. Today there is not the slightest chance of opposition unity in either of these states. Thus, barring a miracle, the BJP is headed for close to 100 seats in 2019 in these two states alone.
Opposition unity will also not happen, not because the desire to form a coalition has suddenly evaporated, but because the dwindling prospect of an electoral victory will send other political parties flocking to join the already-anointed winner. The AIADMK may be the first of a string of such declarations in the coming days.
India may survive the grim years that lie ahead. But it is certain that Nitish will not. Nitish has not only stalled the opposition, within days of his surrender he has asserted, “Nobody in India has the capacity to take on Modi ji”. Is this a note of triumph we are hearing or is it the first, discordant whimper from someone who has begun to realise that henceforth he will derive his power not from below or from the people, but from above – from El Supremo.
This is Modi’s second enslavement of his opposition. For Nitish’s remark is eerily similar to one made by Mehbooba Mufti on May 6 this year, when Kashmir had begun to burn again. “Only Mr Modi can bring a solution to the Kashmir problem,” she had said. These are the fawning remarks of powerless people. Nitish knows as well as Mehbooba does that he is now a chief minister only at Modi’s pleasure. What has not yet sunk in is that everyone in his party knows it too. In a short while, Nitish will be history and the JD(U) will have split, or be a part of the BJP. Sharad Yadav could be the first to depart.
None of this need have happened, for behind the glitz created by Modi’s media blitzkrieg, the ground has slowly been slipping from under the BJP’s feet. The single, undeniable reason is that the economy is a wreck: against the ten million jobs a year he promised, Modi has not been able to create even one million. Most of even these are pseudo-jobs – a few days a month of casual labour makes the respondents ’employed’. But even this one million is a tally only of new jobs added and deliberately excludes the jobs lost during the same period. This is because our government does not tally the number of people who lose their jobs every year and therefore has no idea what happened when Rs 8,80,000 crore worth of infrastructure projects were abandoned because of prohibitive interest rates. It has no idea how many jobs will be lost when the 50 Indian steel and infrastructure companies that are now being dragged to the bankruptcy courts lower their shutters.
It has no clear idea of how many jobs its hasty demonetisation and its ban on cow slaughter, closure of slaughterhouses and decline in leather curing and tanning has cost because it does not want to know.
It has no idea how the collapse of the market for aged cattle has destroyed a critically important part of the meagre capital stock of poor farmers, who would sell them to pay debts, send their children to school, marry their daughters or buy food in times of drought. Today the country is awash with millions of desperate people, young and old, who have lost hope of ever finding a job.
A united opposition could have mobilised the disenchantment of the dispossessed and reduced the BJP to insignificance in 2019. Nitish claims that this is what he was trying to bring about, but was thwarted by Lalu’s shortsighted ambition to take back Bihar for the RJD on the one hand, and by the Congress’s endless, hollow claim to leadership on the other. But by throwing in the towel and joining his arch enemies he has not only committed political suicide, but destroyed the country’s future.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and the author of several books including Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India Dominate the West?