By Vikram Kilpady
Possibly the first state government to fall after the ascendance of the Modi-fied BJP without that party’s hand in the machinations has just shaken up the political landscape in Bihar, and the country. Nitish Kumar has pulled the rug from under the feet of the party. But since history has seen several turns first as a tragedy then as a farce, as noted by Hegel and Marx, Nitish Kumar possibly has the last laugh since he’s done the tragedy-farce duo twice. First, with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and, now, with the BJP, which among its many leaders has one man who gets called Chanakya way too often.
Once the party with a difference, the BJP has mastered the game of overturning elected governments; Madhya Pradesh where a maharajah switched to his aunt’s party, twice in Goa where elected Congress MLAs found faith in a new boss, Maharashtra where the cadre-strong Shiv Sena was ripped apart by a minister’s ambition, Karnataka where Operation Lotus blossomed first and spread its petals across the country.
Soon after the Modi magic of 2014, the dispirited opposition found new hope in the victory of Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav in the Bihar elections of 2015. But that was short-lived, Nitish found himself stifled by the ambition of Tejashwi Yadav and changed his mind, walking back to the BJP, which was eager to support him.
The 2020 election had the writing on the wall written in a more legible hand. The BJP won 74 seats, just one short of the party with the most seats, the RJD, which won 75. Nitish Kumar came third with 43 seats. The BJP was gaining at the cost of the Janata Dal United, which beat down Chirag Paswan’s rhetoric but couldn’t manage enough MLAs. The national party cannibalised its partner several times over throughout their association. The symbiosis of the initial years under Vajpayee was becoming a brain and brawn drain for the JDU. The election results were not free from controversy though, with the RJD alleging ballot boxes were changed in the middle of the night. The elections may have been won by the BJP and Nitish Kumar, helped by the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but politics is not just platitudes, it also involves dirty work.
The use of RCP Singh by the BJP pointed at the potential of a Shiv Sena redux in the JDU, prompting the old fox to return to familiar Janata buddies, though once stabbed and all. But what is politics without the choosing of strange bedfellows, even if it borders on promiscuity and worse.
The other angle to see the Bihar turn is from the lens of national politics. The idea of a country rid of the primary opposition party, aka becoming Congressmukt Bharat, has gained popular acceptance among the many for whom democracy is just voting in a new government. The turning of the Congress from its trademark white kurta to black attire was seen as a gimmick by the mainstream media. Far from a gimmick, the party was using what it encountered in Tamil Nadu where it rides on an ally’s stronger connect. The DMK’s parent, the Dravidar Kazhagam and its offshoots, still wears black shirts in protest against the idea of a homogenous India smearing over the vast differences between the country’s many constituents. With Hindutva becoming that all-unifying glue being applied by the BJP across the length and breadth of India, the Congress’s choice of black shows a new savvy.
Covid may have eclipsed the economy but many other slights and the worsening employment situation have India on uneven terrain. The Centre has to hold, but with accountability of successive state governments now enveloped buried in the image of the much-sought-after Strongman, an image that papered over the stark inadequacies of his administration, and won him and his party elections handsomely. The country was wearily dragging its battered economic self for another election some two years away. Nitish Kumar’s somersault has brought realpolitik back into the mix but investing all hope in serial side-switchers can be harmful for one’s emotions and well-being.
To be a rock for the Opposition, Nitish Kumar should not roll. But can old dogs learn new tricks?