Recently, Bihar Chief Minister and JDU president Nitish Kumar took on the BJP by calling for an "RSS-mukt Bharat". It is becoming increasingly clear that he is attempting to position himself as a contender to Prime Minister Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, a master plan that seems obvious in his relentless efforts to cobble together an alliance of small regional parties like Ajit Singh's RLD and Babulal Marandi's JVM. With a diminished Congress by his side, Nitish hopes to replicate the success of the Bihar electoral formula in the upcoming Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Assam (believe it or not) and other states.
Today, the BJP has become the principal pole in Indian politics with parties of almost every persuasion--Congress, left, socialist, regional--ganging up against this Hindu right party. So, does Nitish stand any chance to emerge as the leader of this anti-BJP front? Will he be in a position to checkmate the political aspirations of BJP in the 2019 LS elections? Here are some good reasons why his national dreams will likely stay that way--dreams.
It's highly unlikely that a person who can't stand on his own feet in Bihar will create ripples on a national level.
1. He lacks individual clout
Nitish may have been credited for his socially inclusive development model in Bihar but he has never quite acquired the stature of a mass leader like RJD chief Lalu. Though he is serving his third term as Chief Minister, he hasn't got the critical threshold to become the CM of the state on his own. He came to power twice with the support of the BJP until he ditched his old alliance partner in the 2015 Assembly elections to form a successful "grand alliance" with the RJD and Congress. It's highly unlikely that a person who can't stand on his own feet in Bihar will create ripples on a national level.
2. Dicey partners
Parties like the JVM and RLD who have agreed to help Nitish in his projection at the national level are too marginalized in their respective states to be of any benefit to Nitish. Moreover, the political unpredictability of Ajit Singh will always weigh in Nitish's mind.
3. Competition from other regional players
Strong regional parties like TMC in West Bengal, SP or BSP in UP, AIDMK or DMK in Tamil Nadu, BJD in Orissa etc have powerful personalities at the helm who have inflated egos. They, too, would not be averse to having a shot at the post of PM when the opportune time comes.
Any projection of the JDU chief as the alternative to Modi in 2019 will be political hara-kiri for the Congress...
4. The Congress factor
The weakened Congress may be in alliance with Nitish in Bihar, but it's too much to expect that a national party will support him in a prime ministerial bid. Any projection of the JDU chief as the alternative to Modi in 2019 will be political hara-kiri for the grand old party which will never allow attempts to push their prince Rahul to the political sidelines. Even if the JDU delivers a spectacular electoral performance in the 2019 LS elections, it is difficult to see it getting more than 15-20 seats in Bihar. Though Deve Gouda and Gujral became PM despite lower numbers, do remember that they belonged to the wider Janata Dal which had presence in quite a few states.
5. Lalu as a spoiler
The Lalu factor can't be discounted in Bihar. Many political experts feel that it was the electoral arithmetic of the RJD chief and his fiery caste rhetoric that catapulted the grand alliance to the throne. Since Lalu was convicted and could not occupy public office, Nitish got the golden opportunity to rule Bihar. Within the alliance, Lalu remains the dominant factor though Nitish is the face. It remains to be seen how far Lalu is accommodative towards the soaring political ambitions of his alliance partner.
Within the alliance, Lalu remains the dominant factor though Nitish is the face.
6. Ideological inconsistency
The political track record of Nitish has been opportunistic. He drove a wedge within Mandal ranks, broke away from Lalu and formed an alliance with the BJP to come to power in Bihar. He had no qualms about being a part of the erstwhile NDA government during the Vajpayee era. Hence, his exhortation to weed out the RSS out from the political firmament of the country smacks of hypocrisy. If there is a leader today who has been in steadfast opposition to the RSS in the socialist camp, he is none other than Lalu. Mulayam, Nitish and Sharad, at one point or the other, have collaborated with the BJP to further their political agendas but not Lalu.
7. Caste miscalculations
Recently, Nitish rooted for a constitutional amendment to increase the ceiling of reservation beyond 50% so as to make way for more inclusion of OBCs, Dalits, minorities and Adivasis despite being aware of the fact that very few politicians will vouch for it in this volatile atmosphere when powerful dominant intermediate castes like Patels, Jats, Marathas and Kapus are up in arms against the state demanding reservation.
His attempts at appropriating the Mandal formula are crude manifestations of caste politics to upstage a Lalu or a Mulayam, and likely to tarnish his assiduously cultivated image of a development man. Resurrection of Mandal may have some advantages in Bihar but when we look at the national picture, this has lost its relevance. In 2019, he will have to confront the BJP which has an OBC PM. As a matter of fact, the BJP today is more Mandal than many of the parties for whom Mandal is a bread and butter issue.
8. It's not game over for the BJP in Bihar
The BJP may be down in Bihar but it is certainly not out of contention. The NDA got 34% of the total votes polled in the Bihar Assembly elections, which was around 20% more than the population of its core upper caste groups. This shows that a significant section of the OBCs and Dalits voted for the party. On the other hand, the Grand Alliance's vote percentage of 42% is only 7% more than the population of its core social groups like Yadavs, Muslims and Kurmis. The secular grouping may rejoice over their victory in Bihar but by no stretch of the imagination is it in an invincible position. Nitish is yet to secure a firm foothold in Bihar.
9. Poor historical odds
From a historical perspective, the Third Front has never managed to cement its position firmly in Delhi. It has been prone to internal squabbling and clashes of egos. Just pause and rewind to the 1977 Janata Party government formation, the 1989 VP Singh government formation and the 1996 Deve Gowda government formation. The Congress, too, played its role to perfection in the downfall of these governments. Any arrangement other than one led by the BJP or Congress at the Centre has been historically doomed to be a failure. Leave aside the formation of a front; the propping up of a consensus candidate appears to be a remote possibility.
His attempts at appropriating the Mandal formula are crude manifestations of caste politics... and likely to tarnish his assiduously cultivated image of a development man.
10. The changing grammar of national politics
Most of the parties on Nitish's radar do not have a pan India presence. They are confined to their respective states and follow identity politics that are highly regional in their focus and patronage. They lack any national vision or viable economic perspective. By 2019, the middle class explosion in numbers, rapid urbanization, deepening of economic reforms process and the huge strides made by internet and ICT technologies will change the grammar of politics. I believe it is not without reason that today, issues are being manufactured (intolerance, curbing of dissent and social divides) to distract the attention of BJP from its development agenda.
Nitish's exhortation to weed out the RSS out from the political firmament of the country smacks of hypocrisy.
Today, the nation is the throes of a clash of ideas. BJP represents monochromatic cultural nationalism and the Congress represents cultural pluralism. But what does Nitish--or for that matter, regional parties, socialist parties or caste parties--represent? It is a multibillion dollar question. They want a confederation of different ethnicities, religious groups, linguistic groups or caste groups but this will never approximate the very idea of a nation. This will add to the centrifugal forces that will tear the social fabric of the nation. This idea may work to some extent at the state level but what if this concept is taken to the national level? The Indian electorate is mature enough to understand this and it is not without reason that of late, the voting trends are getting more and more divergent for state and national elections.
What does Nitish--or for that matter, regional parties, socialist parties or caste parties--represent? It is a multibillion dollar question.
Nitish Kumar seems to be a man in hurry blinded by his hatred towards Modi but he may do well to remember that Modi belongs to a national party with a vast network of cadres thanks to the RSS. Political miracles happen in democracy but not on that scale as Nitish may be hoping for. In his eagerness to don the national colours, Nitish may well lose Bihar where the Lalu phenomenon is slowly but steadily beginning to unfold.
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