Nitish Kumar seems to have forgotten the BJP’s communal propaganda cost it votes in Bihar.
The BJP has succeeded in forming a government in another state without winning elections. The series of “captures” started in Arunachal Pradesh where assembly elections were held in 2014. The Congress won 42 seats in the 60-member assembly. After a period of President’s rule, mass defections from the Congress and the suicide of a former chief minister, the BJP and its allies were able to garner a “majority” in the assembly.
In Manipur, the Congress emerged as the single largest party in the assembly elections in March, winning 28 of the 60 seats. The BJP won only 21 seats. But in a matter of a few days, the BJP was able to form the government and even get six Congress MLAs to defected to it. A similar situation emerged in Goa where the Congress got 17 of 40 seats, emerging as the single largest party. Yet the BJP outmaneuvered the Congress to form the government.
Bihar is the most recent example of the BJP adopting guerrilla tactics to gain power without achieving a democratic mandate. The story is devoid of any pretense of morality and fair play. It is instructive to look at the sequence of events. The sitting chief minister, Nitish Kumar, resigned at 6 pm on July 26, citing his “inner voice”. The BJP, as if waiting for the cue, sent a letter of support to the governor by 9 pm on the same day. On July 27, Nitish was sworn in as the chief minister. The inner voice, which dictated Nitish resign, within a matter of three hours also asked him to accept the support of the BJP and form a government the very next day.
Nitish’s tumultuous past
In 2013, Nitish had broken away from the NDA after it had announced Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. In an article in the Economic and Political Weekly, I had argued that his anti-Modi rhetoric did not hold much weight and the excuse of the Muslim vote bank was only partly responsible for the decision. In fact, Nitish has never been a politician with a guiding ideological principle. In his long career, he has aligned with parties of all shades on the Indian political spectrum, including the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist)-Liberation. It must be remembered while analysing Nitish and his politics that he was one of the first “backward caste” “socialist” politicians to become part of the BJP-led alliance at the national level.
Even within Bihar politics, his Samta Party represented a compromise between a section of non-Yadav backward castes and the upper castes in the mid-1990s. While the backward caste votes got divided between Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish throughout this period, the upper caste votes got consolidated behind the Samta Party (later, Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance). Owing to the legacy of extreme misgovernance under Lalu, Nitish’s victory in the two rounds of assembly elections in 2005 was welcomed.
In his term as chief minister during 2005-2010, he indulged in a major perception exercise with two of his key constituencies – namely the national media and the upper caste voters of Bihar. As is well known, he disbanded the Amir Das commission, which had investigated relations between the Ranvir Sena and political parties, particularly the BJP. A commission to analyse the backwardness among upper castes was also formed by the government. The land reform commission was set up but its report was never tabled in the assembly.
Both the RSS and the BJP convened their national executives in Bihar in 2009 and 2010 respectively. In July 2011, when Brahmeshwar Mukhiya was released from jail due to a lack of evidence against him, many senior BJP leaders went to receive him and celebrated his escape from punishment. The next year, Mukhiya was killed and a mob of people on motorcycles and jeeps went on a rampage from Ara to Patna, reminding the English language media of the jungle raj.
Added to this was Nitish’s ambivalence to the rise in RSS and ABVP activities in the state. Inaction over some cases, such as the Forbesganj firings in which police brutality on Muslims was captured on camera, only compounded the perception that the issue of law and order was handled selectively under the JD(U)-BJP government. This was also the period when the national and international media showered enormous praise on Nitish as the saviour of Bihar, including The Economist, which ran a cover story on him. Soon a number of foreign universities and agencies set up research and investments in Bihar. Nitish looked like a messiah who could not be stopped from liberating Bihar from the clutches of backwardness and “caste politics”.
But Nitish simultaneously also cultivated a new caste politics of his own, which he labeled as Annexure-I politics. The new categories of most/extremely backward castes (MBC/EBC) were not actually new, they flowed from Annexure I of the Mungeri Lal commission implemented by Karpoori Thakur in 1978. He also created a new category of Mahadalits for targeted schemes from the government. Caste remained at the core of his calculations, though upper caste support and a friendly media enabled him to create an aura of “developmentalism” around him.
When Nitish broke away from the BJP in 2013, he actually feared a resurgent attack on his carefully cultivated caste arithmetic. It was, after all, a coalition of extremes, between the erstwhile political monopoly of the upper castes who continued to hold sway over land and bureaucracy on the one hand and a section of backward castes, including Kurmis and Koeris along with a huge chunk of the EBCs, and Mahadalits on the other hand. One does not need to be a Marxist to understand why the long and brutal history of agrarian battles between these social groups makes the said coalition an inherently contradictory patch up between class enemies.
The scripted drama enacted on July 26 reminded me of a press conference that Nitish addressed after the Lok Sabha elections held in May 2014. In the press conference, Nitish rued that ideology had become a bad word in politics. A number of liberal commentators have discussed the fakeness of the so-called secular-communal divide in Indian politics. Some even go to the extreme of mocking these labels, since a politician like Nitish can be classified as secular and communal based on his choice of allies rather than a coherent assessment of his politics. One cannot disagree with this view. Rather, adding to this perspective one can only say that this oscillation between being communal and secular is itself a liberal creation. I do not know if Nitish has personal prejudices against a any social group or a minority but that cannot be a sufficient ground for his qualification as a secular politician. But one thing is for sure, his claims of being a caste-free developmentalist and a secular politician stand dented given his association with the BJP.
Some other commentators have extracted motives of caste vote banks from the decision taken by Nitish. This is indicative of an uncritical application of the ideas of caste and associated “vote banks” to Bihar politics, and in a way marks an attempt to unnecessarily complicate the naked opportunism of the decision. Even if such an assessment is plausible, Nitish has agreed to play second fiddle to the BJP, which will increasingly become more assertive. One cannot guarantee a repeat of Maharashtra in Bihar, where the BJP will graduate from being a junior partner to a senior one in its renewed alliance with the JD(U). This is also due to the fact that the upper caste constituency, in Nitish’s coalition of extremes, overlaps with the BJP’s vote base. Were this constituency made to choose between the two parties, it would obviously side with the latter, which is closer to its interests. It is this aspect that befuddles the most. In realigning with the BJP, Nitish has sealed the prospects of his career. From the possibility of leading the opposition at the national level, he will have to now play second-fiddle to the BJP until such time that it completely overshadows him.
Lessons to draw from November 2015
It has been argued by some that Nitish’s return to the BJP’s embrace illustrates that those who celebrated the verdict of November 2015 assembly elections were wrong. This is a preposterous argument, since it brings politics down to electoral arithmetic alone. The Bihar assembly elections continues to hold two crucial lessons for left-progressive and secular strands of Indian politics. One, the revisiting of the idea of social justice by Lalu needs support and solidarity. His careful and timely invocation of the intertwined casteist and communal character of the Hindu right was creative politics. I don’t remember any assembly election where Bunch of Thoughts and Myth of the Holy Cow were read out, and the interconnections between the ideas of the Hindu rashtra and caste Hindu dominance were simplified to the audience by a mainstream political leader.
Lalu’s election rallies during the campaign were a lesson in countering the propaganda of the Hindu right by asking the right questions about land relations and caste dominance, reservation policies and the like. It is only by linking the problems of landlordism-casteism, communalism and neoliberalism that a coherent political alternative to the Hindu right can emerge. The second lesson that can be drawn from the assembly elections of 2015 is about saying the right thing without always thinking of electoral consequences. During the campaign, Lalu made brave assertions about the empty slogans of cow protection raised by the Hindu right. Beef-eating, according to him, was common among Brahmins in history and even in contemporary times a number of Hindus ate beef regularly. In the so-called cow belt, it was unprecedented for a mainstream political leader to say such a thing clearly, unequivocally and unapologetically.
These two directions of the campaign really hit the BJP hard and this was amply evident from their reactions – most telling when Modi alleged the mahagathbandhan government would snatch away reservations from the backward castes and give it to the minorities (read Muslims). The party also gave full page newspaper advertisements accusing the mahagathbandhan of sheltering terrorists and harbouring sleeper modules in Bihar. The final accusation of beef-eating also accompanied a full page newspaper advertisement all over Bihar with an image of a cow in need of rescue. The BJP lost the elections miserably despite using its core strengths of communal propaganda with the invocation of cow, terrorists and Pakistan, muscle and money power, and control over media. This was certainly made possible by taking their propaganda head on, without any sense of being defensive.
What is clear is this: Nitish is an opportunistic politician and his actions cannot change the fact that the discerning voters of Bihar voted for the mahagathbandhan and a Sangh-mukt future despite Lalu’s past, which has never been a secret. Ideology matters and it will continue to matter. What the liberals need to understand is the power of political courage and ideological consistency and clarity.
Awanish Kumar is a lecturer and researcher based in Mumbai.