Missing piece amid unsure political, social equations: Why Nitish plays the maximiser

Even with a diminished electoral appeal, Nitish has kept himself useful enough to bigger claimants of power.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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As a long winter draws on, an uneasy thaw between two neighbours on 1, Anne Marg, and 10, Circular Road, in Patna has run out of steam. The occupants – JD(U) president Nitish Kumar and RJD chief Lalu Prasad – are back as political opponents after almost a year-and-a-half.

By walking away from Bihar’s mahagathbandhan and the I.N.D.I.A. alliance at the centre, to realign with the BJP-led NDA and retain the chief minister’s post for the ninth time, Nitish has now added another mercurial episode to a saga of being the Machiavellian survivor of the state’s power politics.

Even with diminished electoral appeal, he has kept himself useful enough to two other bigger claimants of power in the state. But why has it been so, and how has he managed to be flexible with the choice of his allies, especially over the last decade or so? These questions aren’t as difficult as they may appear. 

In fact, there are a number of clues to understand the larger context in which Nitish has located his responses over years. Amid the essential and immediate drivers of his moves, let us begin with the former.

It’s easy to dismiss his alliance-switching traits as opportunistic. But the space available for his manoeuvrability has largely been a function of inconclusive political equations and their unsettled social bases in the state. We will come to look at how it’s a byproduct of the nature of electoral politics in the state over the last three decades – different to such an extent that it makes Bihar an outlier to the trends in political contests in most parts of the country. 

It’s in this context that Nitish has always directed his craft and sense of timing to find a convergence of brinkmanship, political space, and expedient trade-offs. In the wider sense of the term, Nitish has been a maximalist – aware of how he and his party can leverage the role of being the missing piece in the inadequate claims by two key rivals to the seat of power. 

In understanding such responses, there is a subtext of how Bihar is an outlier to the largely bipolar contests now seen in other Hindi heartland states, and for that matter, most of other states in India.  

In the 21st century, Bihar hasn’t seen a single party having the numbers on its own to form a government. Even the last Rabri Devi-led RJD government in 2000 was formed with the Congress’s support. In the five assembly polls that followed, it was either an NDA combine (2005, 2010, 2020) or a mahagathbandhan (2015) that secured power, punctuated with Nitish’s 2017 switch from the alliance to the NDA. 

Even the convincing wins of the NDA in 2005 and 2010 and that of the mahagathbandhan in 2015 were coalition wins – none of the bigger parties had the confidence to go it alone, or had the numbers to do so after the election outcomes.

There was a sense of inadequacy seen in both the mahagathbandhan and the NDA once they were bereft of the filler offered by the JD(U), a reality that was clear to both the BJP and RJD in varying degrees in 2015 and 2020. Does this mean that in post-Mandal Bihar, the social bases of power are too fluid and unsettled to give a decisive pan-Bihar mandate to any single political force?

At the same time, a number of smaller parties – like the Vikassheel Insaan Party and Hindustan Awam Morcha – emerged, driven by identity politics and claiming their slice of social justice constituencies. They added to the already cluttered political landscape in the state. 

Unlike other Hindi heartland states, the Left parties continue to have pockets of support in Bihar, winning 16 seats in the last assembly poll. Even Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM found traction by winning five seats in the state, though the RJD weaned away four of these legislators to its fold.

If any proof was needed, the last assembly poll results showed that Bihar’s electoral politics accommodates ideological currents woven around different socio-economic identities. That so many parties with so many ideological differences won seats showed the exercise of political choice was diffused over the coordinates of ideological persuasions and socio-economic interests.

Despite this complex mix, one clear pattern also emerged in the last two decades, that two bigger blocs of the big three – namely the RJD, BJP and JD(U) – can combine to form a power coalition. This has been a tilting factor behind which alliance is strong enough to form the government. 

As the RJD and BJP cancel each other out due to their distinct voter base, self-identity and ideological space, Nitish’s JD(U) is the only moveable piece. Post 2014, this placed Nitish in a position where his party could be the tilt factor with an election for either the BJP, which is his old NDA ally but ideologically divergent , or RJD, an arch rival but ideologically fellow member of the Lohiaite umbrella.

It’s not that the JD(U) aimed to be a filler. 

In his first two stints as chief minister, Nitish worked on building a social alliance of support groups that was aimed at cementing the party as one of the two rival poles of power competition. But in the last decade or so, such ambition has toned down into a more realistic stock-taking of the immediate scene. As the two rivals haven’t extended their arc to clinch a decisive win for themselves, the search for the adjunct has taken them to the JD(U) headquarters in Patna.

This also means there is a significantly unsettled element in the rivalry between Bihar’s two social coalitions. The fluid political formations in the state show that the match-up of different social coalitions powering rival alliances is too unsure. The famed M-Y axis – a few Dalit and EBC groups versus non-Yadav OBCs, EBCs, Mahadalits, Pasmanda Muslims, upper caste accommodation – and the Nitish governance model might be analytical tools but they lack a pan-Bihar appeal to be conclusive enough. 

The shifting sands of power play do not come from very defined social bases. In that sense, the interplay of social forces in post-Mandal and post-liberalisation Bihar is yet to produce a defining power mandate for the state.

For the major political parties in Bihar, alliance-making has been one of the ways around the lack of a clinching power equation in the state. For a national party like the BJP, this is a realisation of the difference between striking distance of the state government and being in the state government. The party has come to grips with the fact that, despite its OBC and Dalit inclusion drive, national narratives, welfare politics, and Modi’s appeal, there are segments of constituencies where it has made only little headway, or faces stiff competition in the state. Till the party’s incremental reach covers that ground decisively, JD(U) would be seen as standing them in good stead. 

In looking for the immediate trigger for his latest move, and there are few, the timing has either startled political observers or could always be seen as a giveaway. 

First, Nitish’s working relation with RJD in the previous government had a large stake in Nitish exploring a larger national role in the I.N.D.I.A. alliance, possibly as the prime ministerial face of the bloc or at least its convener, and Tejashawi Yadav taking over as the chief minister in the state. 

One of the early movers of the I.N.D.I.A., oppositional bloc, facilitating its first meet in Patna last June, Nitish’s search for a solid ground to shift from state politics ran into rough weather with what he saw as bloc’s tardy decision-making and more importantly, the Congress leadership dragging its feet over giving him a pivotal  role in the alliance. In what he saw as a belittling of his efforts and clipping of his role in the national opposition space, especially as he had batted for Congress’s presence in such a bloc, he was now staring at a grim scenario where even without ensuring a weighty perch for himself in Delhi, the RJD would ask the chief ministership for itself.

In hindsight, this is something that Nitish couldn’t reconcile with. And the way the RJD-JD(U) calculations about the I.N.D.I.A. bloc went awry came in the way of an early power transfer that could see an RJD chief minister in Patna.

Secondly, the delay in seat-sharing within the bloc for the Lok Sabha polls added to JD(U)’s anxieties about being given a rough deal. With 16 sitting MPs, the party was looking for commensurate share, but had reasons to believe that the RJD and Congress wouldn’t be weighing its clout based on the 2019 tally, when the party relied on the Narendra Modi-led BJP’s popularity to strike big in the national polls. 

The stalled talks on seat-sharing only fuelled Nitish’s apprehensions, especially when he is keen on retaining  at least a part of the sizeable presence of his beleaguered party in the Lok Sabha. 

There were reasons to believe that he might take a call on ties with the RJD-led mahagathbandhan only after the Lok Sabha polls, but the fact that he decided much earlier also indicates either grim prospects of a favourable share in the I.N.D.I.A. bloc or chances of getting a better share of seats as well as winnability from the BJP-led NDA. 

Third, the recent changes in JD(U) leadership, where Nitish is back as president, also indicates that he is also waging a battle for survival of his party against possible moves of split or defection engineered by his former ally RJD. 

The removal of former president Lallan Singh, thought to be close to the Lalu family, from the party’s top post was seen in this context. In a testing phase for his party, in which the support base of JD(U) has shrunk to the some EBC groups, Koeri- Kurmis and welfare beneficiaries, he is keen on   RJD ministers and secretaries, like in the education ministry, and the pressure for RJD’s pick of transfer and postings, also didn’t seem to go down well with the overall coordination that he seeks to have in the administrative frame of the ministries.

Even though these immediate factors could account for some of the anxieties and calculus behind Nitish’s latest switchover, the essential premises of his shifting preferences could be viewed with a measure of continuity in the nature of political contest and electoral configuration in Bihar. 

The essential point of Nitish’s latest alliance switch is that it again shows unsure political equations in the state and its unsettled social premises. 

As two rival alliances in the state grapple with the link between being in striking distance of power and actually being in power, Nitish is again set to play the maximalist. 

Unlike other Hindi heartland states, Bihar’s cluttered political landscape hasn’t settled down to definite victories and defeats. Nitish has the knack of finding himself somewhere between the two. That space, however, may shrink further if his party doesn’t stop even its limited social base to be poached by his allies as well as rivals. He knows his relevance is tied to being the missing piece in the arsenal of the state’s two key rivals.

This piece was published with AI assistance.


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