What explains Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s adventurous plunge into the rough seas of Third Front politics within months of a historic win in the state assembly elections?
Third Front governments have twice in the past assumed power at the Centre and collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions. Like a bad coin, the concept has cropped up before each general election in the last decade and a half, but has failed to take concrete shape.
Does Kumar think that the time is ripe to give the idea another shot? Will his leadership be acceptable to powerful regional satraps such as the Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee or the Biju Janata Dal’s Naveen Patnaik?
Kumar’s camp premise is this: Having had its run in the past two decades, the phase of identity politics is now over. Slogans, campaign planks and symbols have become jaded and are out of sync with modern-day aspirations. Principles of socialism are still relevant, but its paradigms need to be re-invented.
With this agenda, will Kumar be able to surmount the challenges that ageing socialist leaders such as Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav are likely to pose? And if he does go down this road, will he bequeath the task of Bihar’s governance to his alliance partner, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal?
While easy answers to these are unavailable, Kumar’s assumption of office as the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) president is certainly likely to accelerate the process of building fresh paradigms of socialist politics in the run up to the politically significant elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 and the subsequent general elections in 2019.
Kumar and his emissaries in the past months have already been working on the JD(U)’s merger plan with other parties, including Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, Babulal Marandi’s Jharkhand Vikas Morcha and Kamal Morarka’s Samajwadi Janata Party. JD(U) leaders say that the merger process will be expanded in coming months.
Kumar’s plunge into Third Front politics impacts individual and/or collective aspirations for several established leaders. If he does well, he will not only pose a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, but will also weaken Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s claims for leadership of the “secular vertical” of the country’s politics. Regional satraps including his party’s alliance partner, Lalu Prasad, are also likely to get insecure.
Modi came to power by projecting the ‘Gujarat model’ of governance. Kumar’s plans are to counter him and the BJP with the ‘Bihar model’ of alternative governance by expanding his support base among women and ‘Maha Dalit’ (extremely backward) voters. What will ultimately come of this experiment is anybody’s guess.