Coalition politics is coming of age in India, Delhi-level criticism of regional parties gaining ground notwithstanding. The Bihar CM stands a good chance of bringing together forces looking to capture the non-Congress non-BJP space. ~ Seema Mustafa
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has the potential of emerging as a rallying force for non-Congress, non-BJP political parties, both before and after the elections. His decision to part ways with the BJP on the issue of Mr Narendra Modi has come as a relief to those who were worried about the divisive and polarising effect that the Gujarat chief minister was having on the country. The poor counter provided by the Congress party had sharpened the worry that has eased somewhat with the emergence of Mr Nitish Kumar as a possible prime ministerial candidate.
Significantly, his emergence has isolated the BJP, with most regional parties now looking for third and fourth alternatives. This state of affairs reminds one of veteran BJP leader L K Advani&’s angry and defiant promise to end the party&’s isolation over 20 years ago when the National Front government was in power. He had stormed into the BJP headquarters saying that the isolation would end. And one has to give him credit in managing it, in that the NDA coalition came into existence and into power. Both Mr Advani and former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had realised at the time that India had entered into an era of coalitions, and both the BJP and the Congress would have to partake of this fare to survive.
Now, in one stroke, the RSS has again isolated the BJP, with all political parties finding it difficult to accept and work with the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Even Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who has come out in praise of Mr Modi, cannot be taken as a certainty by the BJP, more so after she withdrew her candidate to support CPI leader D Raja for the Rajya Sabha. This isolation might thus prove expensive for Mr Modi and the BJP, more so as there is dissension within the BJP as well as the Sangh Parivar. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, for instance, has not come out in full support of Mr Modi; and his decision now to not start his Uttar Pradesh campaign from Ayodhya will definitely not go down well with the VHP cadres.
Mr Modi thus has his task cut out for him, in that he has to not just galvanise the party in states like Uttar Pradesh, where it is demoralised and apathetic in its responses, but he has to also ensure that the opposition to him is won over. Mr Advani is a formidable foe as he knows the BJP better than others, and while the so called ‘new ‘ leadership in the party is important, it cannot function effectively in defiance of the ‘old’. There is a thinking that Mr Modi should have targeted the 2019 elections and that his unbridled ambitions might come a cropper ahead of time. However, the fact remains that the BJP has a chance in the general elections only with Mr Modi; without him the party would have been gasping for breath.
Mr Nitish Kumar, on the other hand, has managed to survive the confidence crisis in Bihar, getting support not just from the Independents but also the Congress party at this juncture. Interestingly, Mr Kumar dismissed the latter&’s support in a half sentence, thanking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for calling him secular, but reserved high praise for the support he received from the one MLA of the CPI in the confidence vote. Mr Kumar is widely admired, even amongst sections of BJP supporters, for his administrative capabilities and the manner in which he has steered Bihar out of the doldrums. This will stand him in good stead in the weeks and months running up to the polls, more so as he is seen as a unifying and not a polarising individual. Besides, on the governance front, he is certainly not perceived as second to Mr Modi, more so as Bihar was a far more complicated and poorer state than Gujarat.
The Bihar chief minister will have to acquire a bigger national image in the run up to the elections, and will need the support of regional parties. He will have rivals for the top job in Ms Jayalalithaa and Samajwadi Party&’s Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav, and a mix of circumstances and deft politics will determine the final positioning. However, the elections have moved from a Congress versus BJP battle now into most likely a BJP versus third alternative battle, provided Mr Kumar takes the lead as seems likely.
India is a federal country where a one-party system under the Congress turned into a multi-party system after the Emergency. The first alternative to the Congress party was not the BJP as a single party, but a coalition government with Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister. Despite the insistence of the corporate class and sections of the media, a two-party system is not seen by the majority of Indians as desirable. In fact, regional aspirations work against this altogether, with political parties in respective states gaining ground over the years. It is important to note that now, regional parties are getting as many or more seats in the Lok Sabha as the BJP and the Congress in specific states. In other words, they are not being confined to the state Assemblies by the electorate, which has now been voting for them with higher percentages in the parliamentary elections than for the BJP and the Congress.
Hence this Delhi-level criticism of the regional parties is really out of tune with the rest of India, and in that sense, meaningless and almost phobic carping. Coalition politics is coming of age in India, and requires a greater degree of cooperation, trust and understanding between the regional leaders for a non-BJP, non-Congress option to work on its own. There is more than sufficient space for this amongst the electorate in India that will respond definitively and favourably to a credible alternative. Mr Nitish Kumar has an excellent chance of capturing this space through the inclusive politics of third front formations, as a counter to the exclusive politics of the RSS and Mr Modi.
The writer is Consulting Editor, The Statesman