POLITICS

What Explains Mamata's And Nitish's Differing Positions On Demonetisation

The redoubtable regional leaders are looking at long-term re-alignment in national politics.

16/12/2016 5:51 PM IST | Updated 16/12/2016 8:35 PM IST
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Most of the opposition response to demonetisation has been predictable.

The Congress, taking a confused and incoherent position to begin with, has been unable to up the ante. This is how the Congress under Rahul Gandhi behaves anyway.

The Aam Aadmi Party has opposed it vociferously, but its voice has been lost amidst its electoral efforts in Punjab. The Aam Aadmi Party makes an impact when it stands out. Despite alleging prime minister Modi of corruption, its voice has been lost in the din.

Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal has supported the move--he likes to generally maintain political equidistance from Delhi but never wants to be seen as a challenger against whoever is in power at the centre.

Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Rashtriya Janata Dal, the parties led respectively by Mulayam Singh, Mayawati and Lalu Yadav, the great satraps of the Hindi heartland, have been unable to say anything credible, given that they are seen as symbolising political corruption.

The opposition has generally been unable to make an impact on the demonetisation issue, but two parties stand out. One is Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) and the other is Mamta Banerjee's Trinamool Congress. Both have surprised us with their positions.

Bengal shows the way

Mamta Banerjee has taken away the crown as the number one opponent of demonetisation. That is surprising because not so long ago, she seemed at ease with the Modi government. When prime minister Modi came to power in 2014, Amit Shah went all out to build the Bhartiya Janata Party in West Bengal.

That was in line with the BJP's pan-India ambitions. This meant the BJP was gunning for Mamta every other day. Such was the impact of the BJP's drive people had begun saying the BJP might replace the CPM as the opposition in Bengal.

Sometime in 2015, the BJP gave up on Bengal, and Modi and Mamta made their peace. The Modi government needed her co-operation in the Rajya Sabha and for foreign policy initiatives with Bangladesh. Left leaders had started accusing Didi of being together with Modi.

But Mamta Banerjee has upped the ante against the Modi government since she got re-elected in May this year. When prime minister Modi announced demonetisation on 8 November, she instantly decided to oppose it completely. She didn't waste time mincing words or paying lip service to the fight against black money. She has organized large protests in Kolkata and taken away the opposition limelight from the Congress.

What explains the breakdown of that 2015 calm between Mamata and Modi?

As Mamata Banerjee won 211 of 294 seats in the 2016 assembly elections, increasing her tally by 27 seats over the previous election, she is far from politically insecure. However, the 2016 election gave her a glimpse of the need to stay relevant in Delhi.

There was never any doubt for the Trinamool that it was going to win the 2016 election. And yet it was nervous about the CPM-Congress alliance. Even if the Trinamool had won a simple majority, say 150-60 of 294 seats, it would have been unhappy. The prospect of the CPM and Congress becoming long-term alliance partners nationally was giving Trinamool leaders sleepless nights.

Had the CPM-Congress alliance done even slightly well, even without forming government, the alliance would have been declared a success. That would have made the Trinamool irrelevant in national politics, closing the doors for it in the event, for instance, of a future Congress-led coalition government. Since the Trinamool cannot win West Bengal elections without wooing the state's 27% Muslim population, it can never align itself with the BJP, leave alone join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

It didn't help the BJP, during the West Bengal elections, went hammer and tongs against the Trinamool with the 'Narada' sting that showed senior Trinamool leaders accept cash bribes.

Bihari Babu takes a detour

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's concerns are more local than national. Yet, his support of demonetisation has been most surprising. Even if he feels demonetization has public support, it doesn't explain why he had to endorse it. The ifs and buts, the questions over implementation, don't count. It is clear that Nitish Kumar has chosen to be a nice guy in Modi's toughest hour.

His support hasn't come entirely out of the blue. There seemed to have been a thaw between him and the BJP, and with prime minister Modi himself. His party's joining a government committee to commemorate RSS icon Deen Dayal Upadhyaya was only one indication. What gives?

Nitish Kumar fought and won a very bitter Bihar election last year against the BJP, one in which prime minister Narendra Modi had addressed nearly 40 rallies and attacked Nitish Kumar personally. Nitish Kumar and the prime minister have had a bitter personal history. It was because Narendra Modi was personally anathema to Nitish Kumar that he broke his 17 year old alliance with the BJP in 2013. Nitish Kumar is in alliance with the Congress and Lalu Yadav's RJD in Bihar. What, then, explains such growing proximity to the BJP that Kumar won't even oppose demonetization?

The answer lies in future calculations. Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav are in an uneasy alliance in Bihar. It is no secret the two aren't fond of each other. Lalu Yadav is not the sort of person who is forever going to accept a junior alliance partner's position.

Be it prohibition or law and order, there are any number of issues on which the two leaders and their parties disagree. The only reason why the alliance holds is because Lalu Yaday himself stands at the verge of political retirement, while his two sons have just about begun their apprenticeship. Lalu can't contest elections or hold office thanks to a corruption conviction. His sons are too young to carve out a political destiny on their own.

In 2020, when the next Bihar assembly elections are due, or even a year before in the general elections, it is quite possible the Yadav clan may feel crown prince Tejaswi Yadav is ready to take on the mantle from his father. The parting of ways between Kumar and the Yadavs is a matter of time. In such a scenario, where will Kumar go? He hasn't won a single election without an alliance partner, and hardly has a caste base of his own.

That explains why Nitish Kumar needs to keep his options with the BJP open. It helps that finance minister Arun Jaitley is a personal friend of his.

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