That Home Minister Amit Shah has to say it again and again is itself telling. He keeps reminding us that the Bharatiya Janata Party will contest the Bihar assembly election this winter under the leadership of Nitish Kumar, the head of the Janata Dal (United).
Amit Shah has to keep saying it because the political reality of Bihar is such that nobody would be surprised if the BJP decides to contest the assembly election without Nitish Kumar and finally give Bihar a BJP chief minister.
But Amit Shah’s lack of desire to give Bihar a BJP CM is baffling, given that he’s known to be an aggressive player who bats on the front foot.
The excuses don’t add up
The usual explanations given for this don’t add up. No, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) can’t come together once again. Remember how badly they parted ways? They won’t trust each other, and the public won’t trust them together.
Besides, the threat of the Enforcement Directorate will be enough to prevent both the RJD and JD(U) from trying to defeat the BJP this time. After all, even Nitish Kumar has an alleged Srijan scam to worry about.
No, Nitish Kumar is not invincible in Bihar. 2020 is not 2010. He’s a diminished leader who has only shed political capital year after year in his third term.
The only reason why Nitish Kumar is still in the game is that there is no challenger. The young Tejashwi Yadav has proved to be a champion of masterly inactivity.
But for the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor, the people of Bihar are yearning for change. You can smell it on the streets of Patna, in the bridges over the Ganga, in the villages of Seemanchal. Change is in the air, but there’s no one to capture it.
The party that is best placed to fill the opposition challenger gap is the BJP. This is the right time for the BJP to dump Nitish Kumar and fight the Bihar election alone, with some small allies such as weathervane Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP).
Caste no bar
The BJP might have one fear in standing alone: the non-Yadav OBC vote. The BJP in Bihar is identified as an upper-caste party, and Nitish Kumar’s value in Bihar politics is as a signifier of the non-Yadav OBC vote, and particularly the EBCs (Extremely Backward Classes), a category he created. This old calculation ignores the reality that the BJP has actually been working on the EBC vote for a long time, and won a good chunk of it even when they lost the 2015 assembly election.
The only issue is that of the chief minister’s post. Just as there is a consensus in Punjab politics that the CM must be a Sikh and a Jat, there is a consensus in Bihar politics that the CM must be from an OBC community. The BJP’s opponents in Bihar tell OBC voters that the BJP wants to install an upper caste chief minister and establish upper-caste dominance. After all, didn’t they do the same in Uttar Pradesh?
There is a simple solution to this problem. Declare a CM candidate, someone who’s from an OBC community. It is understandable that the BJP may not want to declare deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi as CM candidate. Worthy as he might be, the joke about him is that he is the JD(U)’s representative in the BJP.
If the BJP wants to declare a CM candidate, it won’t have a dearth of faces. The party groomed Nityanand Rai in Bihar as an OBC leader, and he is now Amit Shah’s junior colleague in the Union Home Ministry. He’s a Yadav.
There’s enough time for the BJP to build a leader as an acceptable CM face. And given the rising anti-incumbency sentiment against Nitish Kumar, a fresh new face would be easily accepted.
High command culture
The problem is not the lack of a face who’s good enough for the party to project. The problem is that the BJP doesn’t want to declare one. If the party projects a CM face and wins, far too much credit would go to this face. And just like the high command culture of the Congress, Modi-Shah don’t want to create regional satraps. They want every election victory to be in Modi’s name, strengthening his public standing.
Dumping Nitish Kumar and fighting without a CM face could be a bit of a risk for the BJP. And it does not have that risk appetite right now.
After the result
What it could do is spring a surprise after the election. Amit Shah has said in his ‘virtual rally’ addressing Bihar that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) shall win two-thirds majority. If that were to happen, the BJP and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP could together have enough seats to install a BJP chief minister. After all, Amit Shah in his public statements is not committing the CM’s post after the election. He’s only saying the election will be fought ‘under the leadership of Nitish Kumar’.
Which is why Nitish Kumar’s fate could be decided in the seat-sharing. It will be difficult to force the BJP to let Nitish Kumar contest more seats than the BJP itself. With its bargaining edge, the BJP will make sure it contests enough seats it can win and lets the JD(U) contests the difficult seats.
And even if Nitish Kumar returns as chief minister, he’s no threat to the BJP. His party has no successor. After him, it is the BJP that will inherit this legacy and have a free run of the EBC vote that the RJD and the Congress have no hope of winning.
A moral responsibility
If the BJP was really committed to the welfare of the people of Bihar, it wouldn’t wait that long. It would dump Nitish Kumar right away and project a CM face. There’s an endless list of failures in Nitish Kumar’s third term: prohibition, Patna floods, rising crime, the neglect of education and health, and finally the worst response possible to the labour crisis.
The poor image of Nitish Kumar today is dragging down the BJP and Narendra Modi in the state. The BJP owes it to its own voters, workers and leaders in the state to rise to the occasion.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.
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