The Opposition has willy nilly been gifted a tiny bit of leverage, in the form of the BJP-JD(U) split in Bihar. The fact that it has done absolutely nothing to deserve this piece of good fortune is besides the point. The question is whether it will seize the opportunity to change the one-sided narrative of national politics.
In effect, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has cavilled at being seen as a placeholder CM, to be replaced and retired at will by the BJP. He has also asserted his right to find his own political/ideological heir in the state - be it in the camp of a friend-turned-foe. In the process of clicking the reset button in Bihar, he has created an opening for a battered Opposition still reeling from the Maharashtra debacle.
Bihar was a chronicle of a doomed alliance foretold. Less a marriage than a live-in relationship of convenience, the JD(U)-BJP partnership was fraught with tension even before the government was sworn in. The circumstances were less than propitious, with the BJP and LJP cadres openly targeting Nitish Kumar in the run up to the 2020 assembly elections, allegedly as part of pressure tactics sanctioned by the high command. LJP leader Chirag Paswan’s adversarial role, in particular, was seen as prompted by the BJP.
That the partners would be at ideological loggerheads was a given; Nitish’s socialist moorings did not sit well with the BJP’s policy agenda and vice-versa. The parties locked horns on a variety of legislative issues, as well as power-sharing arrangements, with a display of mutual disrespect on both sides. At times, it appeared as if the BJP was deliberately seeking to provoke Nitish, denying him the freedom to govern as he saw fit. The Lalan Singh-RCP Singh face-off was the latest in a series of pain points.
What made the split inevitable was the BJP’s strategic objectives in Bihar. Like everywhere else, OBCs are at the centre of the ‘winning’ social coalition it has sought to craft in what it sees as the post-Mandal era of Indian politics. In 2019, it must be noted, the BJP won 44 per cent of the OBC vote, against just 27 per cent by regional parties. In state elections, however, those numbers do not hold, with the regional parties getting a higher share of OBC votes. So it needs alliances, at least to begin with.
Nitish, himself a Kurmi, has long cultivated the EBCs (extremely backward castes), who form 25-26 per cent of the state’s population and are seen as floating voters. In combination with the BJP’s upper caste and dalit votes, the arithmetic worked. The alliance won a hairsbreadth majority in the 2020 elections, in the face of the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s historically successful M-Y (Muslim-Yadav) coalition comprising some 30 per cent of the electorate.
The success of the BJP’s strategy was reflected in its spectacular gains. Its hit rate, at 68 per cent, was double that of the JD(U), with the result that it gained 21 seats while the latter lost 28. Clearly, the JD(U) would face an existential threat in the long term, as the BJP appeared set on subsuming the vote base of its alliance partner.
This brings us to the flashpoint – the BJP’s opposition to a caste census, on which the Mandal parties including the JD(U) have been insisting. A caste census is bound to change electoral dynamics, by throwing up new numbers and leading to a whole new round of social justice and pro-reservation campaigns. Nitish announced a caste census for Bihar in June this year, meeting with acclaim from the RJD and half-hearted support from the Congress.
A caste census is a can of worms that any ruling national party would want to avoid, given the inevitable social unrest that will follow. The BJP, while in Opposition, was all in favour, but realised its hazards once it came to power. The RJD’s Tejaswi Yadav has already sought to unite the Opposition on this issue, by writing to senior leaders across parties, but has not met with any success.
What gives the Opposition a chance to script a fresh narrative of strength and unity is the very fact of Nitish’s departure from the NDA. The ruling alliance no longer looks invulnerable, as it did in the aftermath of the Shiv Sena split and the large-scale defection to the BJP in state after state. The barriers to a united front remain – conflicting interests and differing agendas among the various Opposition parties – but they can be overcome.
Nitish is a neutral face, and despite his penchant for revolving door alliances, can still serve as leader of an Opposition front. This calls for sinking of personal egos, particularly on the part of the Congress, which should not see itself as the centre of gravity. The charge that Nitish has national ambitions is probably baseless; he has never shown any inclination to leave Bihar. But that actually makes him a better fit as an interim Opposition leader, as he will not pose a threat to the regional or national ambitions of any player.
The Opposition must immediately capitalise on the psychological boost provided by Nitish’s shock-and-awe tactics in Bihar. To delay would be to lose momentum, and therefore, the plot.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author. She tweets at @BhavKang