The carefully orchestrated denouement of the Nitish-Laloo-Modi game may have been sudden and ferocious but the movement had been building up for months. In the last one year, Nitish Kumar had demonstrably moderated his language against Prime Minister Modi; had supported policy gambles like demonetization; and clearly expressed his discomfit with the Laloo Yadav family and its taint of corruption. In hind sight, it was the UP elections and the huge BJP victory which broke the camel’s back. Narendra Modi is the tallest leader in the Hindi heartland and any regional satrap which challenges him risks total oblivion. Three broad themes.
First, Nitish Kumar has emerged as perhaps the biggest loser from this episode. Even though he had been in alliance with the BJP for nearly two decades, Kumar had always stressed that this was an alliance of convenience orchestrated to slay the greater evil—Laloo Yadav and the jungle raj which has indubitably been his legacy in Bihar. In the ten years the NDA was power in Bihar, Kumar was its unchallenged leader with the BJP playing a second fiddle. The one politician Nitish Kumar viscerally disliked was Narendra Modi. From his reluctance to share any kind of stage with Modi to the multiple personal humiliations Kumar effected on him, he emerged as perhaps his strongest non-Congress rival. And finally, in 2013, unable to accept Modi’s rise within the BJP, he walked out of the alliance with the halo of a secular martyr. It was a huge political gamble which failed spectacularly as the NDA was virtually guaranteed to retain power in Bihar with Nitish Kumar as its leader. And now he returns to the same alliance headed by his former rival who is the strongest Indian leader in three decades. Not only are Kumar’s national ambitions effectively over, his role within Bihar would be much diminished. The BJP will not be as accommodative as it has been in the past and Kumar would be little more than Bihar’s nominal leader. Modi needed Nitish Kumar once; now Kumar needs him far more. Despite the homilies and courtesies on social media, both Kumar and Modi understand this and its first expression would be in the 2019 elections where the BJP would demand a lion’s share of Lok Sabha seats. With his inability to win elections on his own, capitulation would be Kumar’s only option and in the medium term, BJP would attempt to make him simply irrelevant.
Second, Narendra Modi fought the 2014 elections on the slogan of Congress-mukt India. As Omar Abdullah has correctly pointed out, India in 2017 is staring at an opposition-mukt India. India would still have all the formal trappings of a democracy—regular, well-organized elections—but for all practical purposes, it would be a one-party state. The BJP has expanded more aggressively in the last three years than at any time since its inception in 1980. India will run out of states far before Narendra Modi and Amit Shah run out of time and energy. And what is truly remarkable is its vision which is to a build a party which lasts beyond the Modi era and is India’s only party of governance. The one politician who has truly grasped the import of the Modi project is Laloo Yadav while the rest continue to pretend that this is politics as usual and not a seismic shift.
Contrast that to the opposition. It gives the impression of rearranging the chairs on the deck and worrying about the exact notes of the music being played while the ship lists dangerously. The Communists are worrying about who to send to Rajya Sabha while Mayawati still thinks that her resignation drama would enable her to recapture the Dalit voters currently enamored with Modi. And then there is the greatest whodunit in Indian politics: Will Rahul Gandhi finally become the Congress president when the more pertinent question is whether he will be left with a party to preside over. It is the theater of the absurd.
The prescriptions for the revival of the Congress party have been discussed threadbare and need not detain us here. But in the short-term, only one thing matters: election victories and the ability to form governments. Politics is a brutal sport and complaining plaintively about the BJP stealing our government in Goa interests no one. If it requires forming alliances; form them; if it requires the humility to acknowledge that the Congress party is in severe decline; acquire it. Instead of giving speeches to sympathetic liberal think tanks, Rahul Gandhi should park himself in Gujarat and fight the election as a local leader—from one booth to the next. For shorn of his famous last name and the legatee of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi is no national leader. Political parties can survive electoral defeats—they are a part and parcel of democracy. What causes politicians to jump ship is the sense of despair which is exactly what surrounds the Congress party and the opposition currently. And if Bihar still hasn’t drilled that message home, nothing will.
Finally, India’s pluralistic secularism has been its defining political currency since the formation of the modern Indian republic. Despite all its imperfections, politically it has been very useful. It facilitated political parties in justifying all sorts of alliance and permutations and combinations in defense of secularism. A Mamata Banerjee could seamlessly move from NDA to UPA as and when political expedient under the rubric of saving secularism. In the Modi era, as secularism is being replaced substantively by an increasingly naked majoritarianism, thematically, it has been replaced by the war against corruption.
Consider demonetization for instance. The defining argument for this politically risky move was the war against black money and it has paid handsome political dividends. Even Modi critics cannot deny that the upper echelons of this government generally enjoy a reputation of probity. So careful has Modi been about his anti-corruption image that one of the reasons he has been reluctant to divest loss-making public-sector units is that they inevitably are accompanied by cries of having sold off national assets to favored parties. Only now when Modi feels politically invulnerable has he made the initial moves in privatizing Air India. It is his that image which Nitish Kumar now embraces.
But wasn’t Laloo Yadav a convicted politician when Nitish Kumar allied with him? He was but even political opportunism requires a cover—previously it was the halo of secularism, now it is the halo of the anti-corruption warrior.
“Secularism should not be used to justify corruption” said Nitish Kumar seeking the vote of confidence in the Bihar assembly. Three years back, he may have made a different argument. But then that wasn’t Modi’s India.