What Nitish’s move says about Modi-Shah’s BJP
His predicament was a consequence of a distinct power shift in the BJP of Modi-Shah, compared to the Advani-Vajpayee era, where alliances with once powerful regional satraps are becoming almost inconsequential
If political gymnastics were an Olympic sport, then Nitish Kumar would undoubtedly be a strong contender for the gold medal. After being sworn in as Bihar chief minister for a record eighth time in 17 years, Nitish Kumar has shown himself to be the ultimate street-smart survivor – the serial somersaults are now a part of his political DNA. While the credibility deficit may have widened, his latest gambit also exposes the sheer desperation of the non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Opposition in fighting existential battles when confronted with an expansionist BJP juggernaut and its ruthless Opposition-mukt Bharat agenda.
Nitish Kumar’s decision to break with the BJP and join hands yet again with his frenemies Lalu Prasad and son Tejashwi Yadav is not a genuine change of heart, but is borne from the overriding fear of the BJP rapidly eroding the social and political base of his Janata Dal (United) or JD(U), an anxiety heightened by the BJP’s successful coup in Maharashtra. This BJP phobia has seen two other major 2019 allies — the Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena — also leave the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), while two others — the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Lok Janshakti Party — are in the midst of internal upheaval. While the Akalis are a much weakened force, the Sena has been split wide open.
In a sense, the NDA has ceased to exist and has been replaced by a new predatory political force: The BJP (Modi-Shah or MS) version. The NDA, in its original avatar in the BJP (Advani-Vajpayee or AV) era, was a sizeable grouping whose identity revolved around a mix of fierce anti-Congressism and consensual Vajpayeeism. From the socialist George Fernandes to the mercurial Mamata Banerjee to the militant Hindutva flag-bearer in Bal Thackeray, a range of leaders found space in the umbrella coalition. But since the BJP (MS) took over in 2014, the NDA has lost more than 20 allies, large and small. There is now not a single alliance partner of the BJP with double-digit seats in the Lok Sabha. This reveals the total dominance of the BJP (MS) in creating a distinct power shift in which the allies are almost inconsequential.
Perhaps, the speed and efficiency with which the BJP (MS) has moved to establish its supremacy has caught its older allies by surprise. In Bihar, the JD(U) was the senior partner till the 2020 assembly elections, when the BJP’s seats and strike rate were far greater. Reports that one-time NDA ally Chirag Paswan was used to undermine the JD(U) only aggravated the uneasiness in relations. Ditto the case in Maharashtra, where the Shiv Sena found itself relegated to a junior status. Even the Akalis were distanced once the redoubtable Parkash Singh Badal no longer helmed the alliance. Not surprisingly, no ally was given more than a single Cabinet berth each in the Narendra Modi government.
In contrast, in the BJP (AV) period, the party nurtured alliances to gain a foothold in key states. In Congress-dominated Maharashtra, the BJP needed the Sena’s muscle to spread its wings. In Punjab, the Akalis’ Sikh identity broadened the BJP’s appeal. In the complex caste matrix of Bihar, a “Mandalised” force like the JD(U) allowed the BJP to move beyond its core upper caste support base.
But in the last decade, as the BJP (MS) has built a very different social coalition led by Other Backward Classes, especially in the Hindi heartland, the dependence on allies has lessened. The imposing personality of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the combative nature of Amit Shah has meant that BJP (MS) allies are now intimidated and not comforted in the presence of the all-powerful duo. Those who can afford to strike out on their own have chosen a modicum of self-respect over total surrender.
Which might explain a certain inevitability of Nitish Kumar’s latest break with the NDA. Kumar, after all, was the first NDA leader to challenge Modi’s leadership in 2013 when the latter was selected as the BJP’s prime ministerial face. When the secular mahagathbandhan experiment with the Yadavs did not last, and Kumar did a U-turn while returning to the NDA fold in 2017, it was a reluctant acceptance of his limitations in challenging the dramatic ascent of Modi.
Nitish Kumar’s predicament mirrors that of most regional party leaders today. The choices before these leaders are stark: Either quietly accept the authority of the BJP (MS) leadership or risk isolation and be hostage to the coercive powers of the central agencies. A Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Mohan Reddy have bought peace with the Centre. A Mamata Banerjee has been more defiant, but as her decision to abstain from the vice-presidential vote has shown, she too is unwilling to risk an all-out war with Modi. As for the other dynastic regional parties, family fortunes are squarely on the BJP’s and the Enforcement Directorate (ED)’s radar.
Bihar could well be the final battleground between an imperious BJP at the Centre armed with State power and ageing but canny regional satraps with their caste armies. For now, Nitish Kumar may be taking a fresh guard with a pre-emptive strike, but a “betrayed” BJP is unlikely to sit quietly. Will Patna be the next destination for the ED? Watch this space.
Post-script: Goa best exemplifies how the BJP has changed its power equations with allies. In the 1990s, the BJP used the regional Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) to build a beachhead in Goa. Today, the MGP is a marginal force in a BJP-led government. As an MGP leader admits ruefully, “We offered the BJP a share in our Hindu vote bank but they completed a hostile takeover.”
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal