Nitish Kumar’s astonishingly big victory in the Bihar assembly elections has the potential to re-energise the NDA. Indeed, for the alliance that ruled India till 2004, the Bihar result is a landmark in three ways. First, for the past six years the NDA has been searching for the new Atal Bihari Vajpayee — a centrist leader who could bring in incremental allies without doing serious damage to the BJP’s support base. With Kumar, for the first time, a non-BJP leader is claiming Vajpayee’s mantle.
The weakening of the NDA has been gradual but obvious since 2004. Mamata Banerjee, N Chandrababu Naidu, Naveen Patnaik: regional leader after regional leader has walked out. All three — even Banerjee, provided the Trinamool Congress wins a majority on its own in West Bengal in 2011 and doesn’t need Congress MLAs — could conceivably share space with Kumar. They could then appear on the same platform as the BJP without seeming to climb down. If politics is about opportunities and exit strategies, Nitish Kumar has just opened up many.
Second, flowing from the first point, Kumar has offered a template for other regional leaders who may contemplate a tie-up with the BJP. The saffron party can be forced to play by the ally’s rules and tailor its politics and agenda to the needs of the specific state, without introducing unrelated and non sequitur national or sometimes millenarian issues. If this formula can work in Bihar, why can’t it work elsewhere?
Third, for those in the BJP who argue against state alliances and insist that this only damages the party, Bihar offers a slap in the face. Far from declining, the BJP has gained some 30 seats. Nitish Kumar’s advance has also translated into the BJP’s advance. Of course, the BJP has had to work very hard to keep its social constituencies loyal. It had failed to do this in, for instance, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa and reduced itself to a rump. The lesson here is that the BJP’s problems are often not its regional partners but its own shortcomings.
It’s too early to suggest that Kumar is now the face of the Opposition, much less the candidate for prime minister in 2014. However, he will certainly be a contender. More important, his Bihar model is potentially scalable. Paradoxically, his win also makes clear that a non-Congress alliance minus the BJP is just not viable. However, for the BJP a coalition will require a coherent and modernist entity, not one devoted to social prejudices and economic mindsets that died out with the 1990s.
This is a point individuals within the BJP have made several times in the past few years. The party’s parliamentary leadership certainly advocates it. However, the party bureaucrats and Sangh secondments offer their own view, for their own reasons. Perhaps an outsider carries more weight than somebody within the family. If nobody in the BJP leadership is influential enough to push a mainstream agenda on fringe sections of the party, perhaps Kumar and other prospective state/national partners can. To that extent, Bihar will strengthen the ‘politicals’ within the BJP.
An even harder message is reserved for the Congress. In the summer of 2009, the party could have been forgiven for believing that 2014 was a done deal. This was based on the assumption that the Congress would hold on to its seats of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and also make substantial gains in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Today, the story seems very different. Bihar has been a washout. It will inevitably have an impact on Uttar Pradesh. There, the Congress is in a two-horse race with the BSP as the 2012 assembly elections approaches, but Mayawati remains a formidable incumbent. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress is looking at a big setback. In West Bengal, a series of middle-rung leaders have migrated to the Trinamool Congress in the past 18 months. In Tamil Nadu, the party saw a huge turnout for Youth Congress internal elections but — as Bihar made apparent — there are
limits to Rahul Gandhi’s well-meaning labours in uprooting entrenched players in real elections.
So what does this leave us with? ‘There is no Alternative’ has just been challenged by ‘Nitish is the Alternative’. Will 2014 see TINA take on NITA?
Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed by the author are personal .