Mainstream, VOL LII, No 44, October 25, 2014
Secular Forces at Crossroads
Friday 24 October 2014
by Arun Srivastava
The secular alliance of the RJD, JD(U) and Congress no doubt has checkmated the BJP’s juggernaut in Bihar and managed to send a strong message to Narendra Modi that his efforts to work out a new kind of social engineering could not match the nuances of the Mandal philosophy and succeed in the existing socio-political condition. The superstructure of Modi’s social engineering was not based on some strong fundamentals. What is significant for Nitish’s secular alliance is that it has a significant participation of the upper-caste population. At the surface it may not appear to be different from Modi’s model, but the fact is that while Modi’s combination has communalism as the axis, the Nitish model is by nature inclusive having socialism and egalitarianism as its fulcrum.
The message of the by-election electoral verdict was clear: the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combination and the structure of their social engineering is not at all invincible as it appeared to be during the Lok Sabha elections. The by-elections are not perceived as a referendum or people’s mandate on the functioning of the incumbent government. But from the beginning of the campaign for the by-elections, the State BJP leadership, and particularly the media, had projected the electoral battle as the War of Plassey. The media riled and jeered Nitish for a poor turnout of the voters at the very first joint public meeting of Laloo and Nitish at Hajipur. An assiduous campaign was launched against Nitish for joining hands with Laloo. Even some channels predicted that this was the end of the road for Nitish who is no better placed to challenge Modi’s leadership. They even termed the election as a referendum on the three-month governance of the Modi Government.
It is an open secret that Bihar was the focal point of Modi’s Lok Sabha campaigning. Modi tried to build a strong rank of cadres committed to his cause. But his band of cadres could not swing the people’s mood in favour of the BJP. Modi’s abrasive style of functioning has even alienated a section of the upper-caste voters and turned them hostile. At one stage the upper-caste Muslims had turned soft towards him. But soon this was replaced with skepticism. His approach to the Muslim question was clearly defined by the saffron dogma. The Modi overkill proved counterproductive for the BJP in Bihar. The mood on the ground offered a hint of the situation. While the Muslim votes got sharply polarised against him, the Hindu votes did not consolidate enough in his favour to give his party a resounding victory in the battleground State. The Lok Sabha elections witnessed the strongest-ever polarisation of the upper castes and OBCs in favour of the BJP and of the Muslims and Yadavs in favour of the Congress and RJD. Nitish’s JD(U) had to be content with the Mahadalits and Pasmanda Muslims (backward Muslims).
Nitish has been quick to read the mind of the people though he was quite dejected at the people failing to appreciate his development initiatives and actions. He knew that this was the situation: now or never. If he had to spring back he had to join hands with his arch enemy Laloo Prasad and fight the by-elections jointly. For him by-elections provided the right opportunity to reassert his political stature. That was the reason that putting his ego on the back burner he shook hands with Laloo. It is not that he was unaware of the political consequences he would have to face for his political adventure. Nitish’s political ascendance was due to his crusade against Laloo and his corruption. Obviously for Nitish it was a big gamble. Even then he opted for it. The only factor that mattered for him was to register a victory in the by-elections. If he lost, he know his government will fall and he would be finished forever.
In an unprecedented campaign the BJP leadership riled and inflicted jibes on Nitish Kumar for joining hands with RJD chief Laloo Prasad and floating the secular alliance. They even accused him of pushing the State towards jungle raj. They ridiculed the alliance as an attempt to revive casteism and throwing Bihar once again into the lap of anarchy and goondaism. Their sole intention was to titillate the sentiment of the people and revive the memories of nightmares of Laloo Raj. No doubt the BJP had a strong argument. But the people’s response and participation in the electoral process made it abundantly clear that the BJP had failed in their endeavour to turn the people against Nitish. Even during the Lok Sabha elections Nitish was averse to joining hands with the RJD or Congress. The Congress before the Lok Sabha elections had in fact sent feelers but Nitish refused to respond. If Nitish had entered into an alliance with the Congress, which has 10 per cent of the popular votes, the Lok Sabha results would have been different.
The message of the by-election electoral verdict was clear: the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combination is not at all invincible as it appeared to be during the Lok Sabha elections. Usually the ruling dispensation seldom loses the electoral fight. But this time the BJP lost the by-elections in Karnataka, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Losing in one State could have been comprehended: the local factors influenced the voters. Since the BJP lost in all the four States, which was why this acquired subjective political importance. But the worst happened for the BJP in Bihar. Intensive spade-work of Narendra Modi during the Lok Sabha elections went futile.
The victory of the Laloo-Nitish secular alliance in the by-elections to the Assembly will certainly be remembered for the success of Nitish Kumar’s political experiment in Bihar but more than that it would be credited for making the political class of India realise that the BJP and Modi, enjoying the patronage of the RSS, were not invincible. The BJP and its media and intellectual friends have been trying to create an impression that the BJP lost as it went to the polls alone. This is entirely wrong. The fact is that the BJP along with its allies, Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP and RLSP, had formed a strong caste combination. But there were no takers. The party leadership had even said that special status would be conferred on Bihar by the next Chief Minister from the BJP. There is no denying the fact that the BJP leadership had taken for granted that this time too the people of Bihar would defeat the RJD and JD(U). Significantly, the BJP’s State leadership has accepted responsibility for the defeat. But they are hesitant to accept that it was a referendum on Modi’s performance. There is a general feeling that there is not much difference between the Congress and BJP governments.
The changing mood of the people could be understood from the simple fact that despite the presence of the RSS on a large scale—the organisation has sixty odd shakhas—the BJP lost the Bhagalpur urban city to the Congress after 23 years. This is the most significant verdict of all the ten results. The Bhagalpur seat was being represented by senior leaders Ashwini Choubey and Shanawaz Hussain. Even in the seats which were won by the BJP, its vote percentage has declined. This is indicative of the fact that the people are for a more meaningful role of the secular forces and parties. In Banka, the BJP candidate defeated his nearest RJD rival by a slender margin of 711 votes. There is a general impression that the urban middle class has embraced the BJP. But the verdict erased this impression. The BJP’s vote-share has substantially declined. In the Lok Sabha the party got nearly 46 per cent of the votes. But this time that has come down to 36 per cent. From the constituencies where the alliance candidates won, the increase has been quite significant, from 25 per cent to 30 per cent. In Bihar too the party was contemplating to experiment with Shah’s formula. But it met with miscarriage. In Uttar Pradesh Shah managed to forge an alliance of OBCs and Rajputs-Brahmins. But this thesis did not find takers in Bihar as the people were apprehensive of the move and intentions of the leadership.
The results make it clear that Nitish has succeeded in carrying out his ideological experiment in the political laboratory of Bihar. With the “secular alliance” checkmating the the BJP’s victory march in Bihar, an elated Nitish Kumar expressed satisfaction over his “experiment” and said the results would have been better had the parties discussed seat-sharing in a better way. It is obvious that Nitish to some extent succeeded in amending Laloo’s earlier equation of Muslims and Yadavs. Nitish’s message is clear: the new secular front is not only confined to the parameters of backward-caste politics but more than that, it is a forum for inclusive growth of the poor and common people.
Nitish is standing at the crucial crossing of his political life. Even if something goes wrong that would not affect Laloo. The stakes are not too high for Laloo. Small gains are enough for him. Nitish knows that Laloo will overshadow him, a fact he would not like to admit in public. Even while floating the secular alliance Laloo tried to play the role of the big brother. At one public meeting he told the audience that Nitish fell on his feet. “Naturally being the elder brother I picked him up and embraced him,” he said. With the fodder scam cases still being heard at different levels in the CBI and High Court and Laloo losing his Lok Sabha seat due to his conviction in one of the cases, it is certain that Laloo personally would not pose a major threat to Nitish. But anything can happen at any stage. The situation may go beyond Nitish’s comprehension on the issue of contesting the Bihar Assembly elections in 2015. Laloo may be having the support of the Muslims and Yadavs, but he is still remembered for his misrule. It would be wrong to presume that the by-election results have washed off the sins of Laloo Prasad. It was basically the people’s assertion against the BJP.
The secular alliance had projected Nitish’s Bihar Brand, the economic package for the growth and development of Bihar and providing good governance. Kumar said: “The experiment we made through the tie-up has proved successful. People have expressed their mind and mood in favour of it.” One thing is absolutely clear—that Nitish would prefer to face the 2015 polls on the strength of his development work.
The future of the alliance solely depends on Laloo’s approach to Nitish’s development plank. If he allows Nitish to administer the State and carry on his development projects, it would be smooth going for the alliance. Nevertheless, chances of this happening appear to be bleak. In this background Nitish may prefer to pursue Tagore’s famous line “Tabe Ekla Chalo re” (move ahead alone).
Both the leaders are now contemplating to experiment with the alliance at the national level. The Congress is quite cosy with the secular alliance. So far the Congress used to dictate the nature of any alliance; this would be the first time the concept, principles and parameters of the secular alliance would be defined by the regional satraps. Unconcerned of the future possibilities, at present the Congress leadership is quite elated at the party’s performance in the by-elections. As of now one thing that appears to be certain is Laloo and Nitish would prefer to carry the Congress along with them. “We have joined hands not for the sake of power but to save the society and country which are under threat from forces out to create division along communal lines in the society,” Kumar had said while addressing a public rally.
Elated at the performance of the secular alliance, the General Secretary of the CPI-M, Prakash Karat, said the unity between the JD(U) and RJD in the Bihar Assembly by-elections had paid off in keeping the BJP out and stressed that the secular forces should draw proper lessons from this. He also observed that the Left can cooperate with the secular forces wherever possible. Karat said: “These by-elections have political significance as far as Bihar is concerned. The unity among some major non-BJP secular parties has paid off as they could pool their votes and resources. I think the understanding was correct as far as their getting together (in Bihar) was concerned.” Though he also said that the CPI-M was committed to form a broad platform to fight against the “anti-people policies and communal designs” of the Narendra Modi Government, he did not spell out what the party’s role would be in keeping together Nitish and Laloo.
The secular forces should draw proper lessons from the Bihar by-polls. They should not be swept away by this political development. No doubt the victory of the anti-BJP forces in the by-polls showed a growing disenchantment among the people with the BJP and its policies and the secular forces must draw proper lessons on how to fight the ruling coalition at the Centre. Rhetoric alone would not help. The secular forces, and particularly Nitish and Laloo, have to reach an understanding and then must draw up the strategy as to how to fight, not only on the secular plank, but on the economic policies also. The beginning has been picture-perfect but it is now for Laloo and Nitish to keep the alliance going in the larger interest of the poor and oppressed people who are going to be the eventual target of the saffron dispensation.
The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org