Did the Bharatiya Janata Party underestimate the political sagacity of Bihar Chief Minister Nitesh Kumar? It seems they did as a change of government in the state shows. Nitesh left the alliance he had stitched with the BJP in the last election to join hands with an old rival, Rashtriya Janata Dal, to form a new government when he again emerged as the Chief Minister. It was a coup that the opposition watched with glee as it had seen one government after another toppled by the BJP. The JD (U) alleged that a strategy to topple the Nitish Kumar-led government was in the pipeline, and efforts were made to split the party and get legislators to cross over to the BJP. Just the way the BJP managed it in Maharashtra. And Karnataka. And Madhya Pradesh. Efforts were made to do it in Rajasthan, but they could not pull it off.
What does this mean for parliamentary elections in 2024? It has suddenly fired the imagination of the opposition grappling to make itself heard and seen. There is a new hope that if there is a good opposition combo, it will give the BJP a good run.
As it seemed earlier this year, it will not be a cakewalk for the BJP. Remember, it has to do well in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Punjab, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Not easy.
Also, Maharashtra will not be easy, although it managed to stealthily pull the carpet from under the feet of the Shiv Sena, which had chosen not to go with the BJP after the elections as it saw that it would not grow in the state if it did. Shiv Sainiks are also bhakts of their party that Balasaheb built. The Thackerays cannot be written off so soon. The Shiv Sena under Uddhav Thackeray wants to have an identity of its own, and that is why it will not align with the BJP. It is uncomfortable even aligning with the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress as it is. The Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi is not going to lick its wounds and disappear. It will aggressively fight back.
In the last Lok Sabha elections, the National Democratic Alliance bagged all but one seat in Bihar. It will certainly not be able to do that in 2024 as it will have to go alone with some small inconsequential parties. A combination of the JD (U) with the RJD, Congress, CPI (ML), CPI and CPM will be formidable. The backward classes in Bihar that form a large vote bank will back Nitesh as it has always done, not the BJP. He will also get the Muslims to vote for his alliance for apparent reasons.
The opposition parties have wisened up to the reality that even if they hold hands in an alliance with the BJP to win elections and grab positions of power, it will not be allowed to flower and grow.
They have seen what happened to the Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab. They saw what happened to the mighty Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. Now, the JD (U) says it left the alliance before the operation to split it could take root.
The AIADMK also saw how it got weakened in Tamil Nadu. The Biju Janata Dal, with Naveen Patnaik as the Chief Minister, has been going strong in Odisha. Still, it is also very cautious as BJP leaders like Amit Shah declared that they would rule Odisha very soon.
The Asom Gana Parishad that once ruled Assam tied up with the BJP only to realise that it led to their being wiped away. Today, it is a pale copy of its vibrant self. The Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh also saw how it was used and dumped by the BJP. Former MP Pavan Varma, now with the Trinamool Congress, says that the BJP used regional parties for its expansionist ambitions.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal asked his party leaders in all states where the Aam Aadmi Party is active to develop an intelligence network to ensure that the BJP does not poach its elected representatives or activists. Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren is now fearful that his government is in danger as he suspects that horse-trading plans to wean away his party MLAs are being formulated by the BJP top brass.
After Ram Vilas Paswan, a crafty Bihar leader of the Lok Jan Shakti Party, passed away, the BJP managed to split the party to weaken it. It then adroitly used his son, Chirag Paswan, to break into the JD (U) vote bank in the last elections. As the LJP put up candidates against the JD (U), the backward class vote got split, resulting in JD (U) losing many seats. Chirag expected to be richly compensated by the BJP, but the party just dumped him after the elections. When Chirag went around the state claiming that he was Modiji ka Hanuman, the BJP was okay with it wanting other backward class votes. The BJP did not hide its glee when the JD(U) came a poor third after the RJD and BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. This stung Nitish a great deal, but as the combination of the BJP and JD (U) had more seats than other rivals like the RJD and the Congress, he kept silent as the BJP chose to make him Chief Minister even though they had a more significant number of seats.
It was an uneasy alliance. The politics of the BJP had never been comfortable for Nitesh, but he hung around with them as he had no choice. It was the best thing to do to hold on to the Chief Minister's chair. But now, he has other plans and will stick to a coalition where his party can grow on its own steam. But as the RJD under the new leadership of young Tejashwi Yadav takes shape, he will have to tread carefully. Currently, the RJD has 80 seats, the JD(U) 45, and the Congress 19. The BJP has 77.
Bihar is Crucial for BJP
Bihar's 40 Lok Sabha seats are very crucial for the BJP to stay in power at the Centre. With a caste combo in place with the RJD and JD (U) coming together, it will not be easy for the BJP. The only leader of the BJP who is well-known outside Bihar was Sushil Kumar Modi. As he was getting on well with Nitish as the Deputy Chief Minister, the BJP replaced him with two relatively unknown others. Bihar is the only Hindi-speaking state where the BJP has not been able to form a government on its own steam.
What is laudable is that the RJD has nearly double the number of seats in the Assembly, but Nitish called the shots as Tejashwi Yadav has to settle for the Deputy Chief Minister's job.
BJP's strategy of systematically weakening its allies to wipe them out of the political landscape in due course of time and reign unchallenged will backfire as allies are wisening up. They are seeing how the central government uses agencies like the ED to target opposition leaders of various parties while none of its own is ever targeted.
Home Minister Amit Shah recently said that the BJP would form a government in Odisha soon, and the party was working on a strategy for 2024. Till now, Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal was favourably disposed towards the Modi government supporting its Bills in Parliament, for instance. But, now, he will be more alert even though in 2019, the BJD had won 112 seats, and the BJP had won just 23.
In the last three years, three significant allies have left the BJP: The Shiv Sena, the Shiromani Akali Dal and now the JD (U). The BJP will have no choice but to build bridges with the BJD in Odisha, Jagan Mohan Reddy's YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh, AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and splinter groups in the north-eastern states. Despite pumping huge funds into Kerala campaigning, the BJP did not win a single Assembly or Parliamentary seat in the last elections.
The BJP will do well to figure out that arrogance does not pay in electoral politics. Congress is paying the price for what it did in terms of arrogance and taking the electorate for granted in the last ten years that they were in power.
Soon after BJP president J P Nadda said that regional parties would be wiped out and the BJP would rule every state, the change of government in Bihar happened. By saying this, Nadda exposed the thinking in the BJP high command and what it ultimately wanted. Nadda could do little to stop Nitish from moving away.
Nitish has an opportunity of a lifetime before him. Suppose he carries the coalition with him, which is not easy considering that the RJD has more seats, he would do well in governance. In that case, anti-incumbency is something he could fight in the next parliamentary and Assembly elections. He has time to prove that he can help Bihar see a new day. He is a good administrator, as his first term amply showed.
He seemed to be the best Chief Minister in India at that time. He displayed courage and political will to bring in change. He reined in the criminal mafia and boosted education and anti-poverty schemes. He gave free bicycles to school girls increasing the number of girls opting to get educated. As Bihar saw new days, a lot of reverse migration happened. But in his second and third time, he lost the plot and was seen playing second fiddle to whosoever he aligned with. That is a lesson he should learn from. The electorate has high expectations of him, and the recent Agnipath violence in Bihar indicates that the state youth are now getting restless as there is little opportunity.
What Bihar badly needs is good governance. It must come out of the morass it has been caught in for decades. A good leader can make all the difference. Ever since the economic reforms Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh unleashed on India, almost all states have widened their lead over Bihar in terms of per capita income.
Sadly, Bihar is better known as one of the largest exporters of poorly skilled uneducated labourers who throng every state in search of jobs and the hope of sending some money home to their low-income families. According to Niti Aayog, 51 per cent of Bihar's population is poor. It is one state that has been unable to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, poor healthcare and malnutrition.
It is a sunshine moment for Nitish if he grabs the opportunity life has thrown at him. If he does well, he may as well be considered as the prime ministerial opposition candidate in 2024. With Bengal getting under a cloud of corruption charges, Mamata Banerjee cannot throw her hat into the ring. Other parties do not see her as the right candidate due to her mercurial behaviour and ego-centric antics. She does not have the sagacity that Nitish has to carry the opposition. But more important is that Bihar needs governance more than ever now.
(Ramesh Menon is an author, award-winning journalist, educator and documentary filmmaker)