In all the excitement over the fall of the Nitish Kumar-BJP government in Bihar and the swearing-in of a Nitish Kumar-plus-everybody-else government, there are three things that still need to be emphasised.
One: this is no great victory for secularism. Nitish’s associates have let it be known that he was deeply disturbed by the BJP’s divisive politics. Really? Was the man sleeping all these years? Did he wake up and notice that divisive politics were on the rise only when the BJP tried to split his party, JD(U)?
We have been here before. When Narendra Modi was on the rise within the BJP, Nitish let it be known that as an essentially secular person (who had nevertheless allied with the BJP), he would avoid Modi. When he joined hands with the RJD and others to win the 2015 Bihar election, he made out that this was because he was horrified by the communal politics favoured by the Modi-led avatar of the BJP.
But once he had problems with his alliance partners, Nitish quickly forgot all this and went scurrying back to Modi in 2017 to keep his chief ministership. As politics took a more communal turn, he nevertheless went on to fight the 2020 Bihar election in alliance with the same Narendra Modi he had, apparently, once been so disapproving of.
For Nitish Kumar, secularism is no more than a flag of convenience.
The idea of a pluralistic, diverse India where all citizens are equal is in danger, not just because Hindutva is the dominant ideology in North India but because politicians like Nitish, who claim to be motivated by secularism, often turn out to be humbugs. Each time an opportunistic politician talks about their bogus secular beliefs, they devalue the original idea of India in the eyes of the voters.
So no, this is no victory for secularism. It is merely the latest manoeuvre by a shrewd politician who has changed sides so often that he must wake up in the morning and struggle to remember who his allies are today.
The problem of allies
Two: while secularism has very little to do with it, the Bihar re-alignment reminds us why the BJP is having problems with allies. In just over two decades, the party’s fortunes have changed dramatically. In 1996, when it was the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, it was unable to form a stable government because other parties considered it beyond the pale. When it did form a government in 1999, it was always at the mercy of allies who acted as though they were doing the BJP a favour by aligning with it. And indeed, one of those allies, Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK, did bring the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government down. When Vajpayee took office again, he was careful to keep his allies happy.
That version of the BJP was friendly and accommodating towards its allies. Vajpayee had never expected to take office in his lifetime (when he was handed the letter by the President asking him to form his first government, he was so overwhelmed that the tears flowed). So he was grateful to the allies who made it possible.
Modi’s BJP, on the other hand, sees itself as the natural party of government. It believes it needs nobody else to govern with and sees no reason to respect its allies. After all, the party has won two national mandates in a row and Modi is — by a long way — the country’s most popular politician.
All this may be true — at least for now — but Modi and Amit Shah (the former BJP president and current Union home minister) take it even further. In the BJP’s first term in office, Shah spoke of wanting to create a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’. When the Congress obligingly lay down and collapsed, failing at two national elections and losing state after state, Modi and Shah acted as though this should be a lesson to other parties: do as we say or face demolition.
Take the case of Maharashtra. The BJP-Shiv Sena alliance broke over the question of the chief ministership. Uddhav Thackeray wanted a revolving arrangement where the BJP and Shiv Sena shared the office. It was a demand that could easily have been conceded. But Amit Shah said no, leading to the end of the alliance.
Later, the BJP punished Uddhav for his disobedience by winning over his MLAs with threats and blandishments till his coalition government fell. As part of this operation, they gave the chief ministership to rebel Shiv Sena leader, Eknath Shinde, not to their own Devendra Fadnavis. So was it worth it? Shouldn’t they just have agreed to Uddhav’s terms to begin with?
No. Allies must do what the BJP wants. And even the choice of Shinde as chief Minister is not a sign of weakness. The BJP reckons that now that he is in office, Shinde can turn his rebel faction into the real Shiv Sena and finish off the Thackerays. The punishment of Uddhav continues.
As political styles go, this is dramatically different not just from the Vajpayee-Advani style of functioning but from the manner in which every national party has behaved in the history of India. This incarnation of the BJP wants an India where every other party collapses unless it supplicates before the BJP. And even when it does supplicate, as Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) did in Bihar, the BJP may try to destroy it, anyway.
BJP won’t give up
And finally: the jubilation over Bihar may be short-lived. The BJP will not take this humiliation lying down. It will make life as difficult as it can for the new Bihar alliance. It will need to strengthen its claim that the RJD is corrupt so expect more ED/CBI raids, and more cases as the investigating agencies are unleashed. My guess is they won’t have to look too hard: Bihar is hardly a haven of clean governance.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah cannot afford to allow the message to go out that an ally can defy them and still flourish. It took them nearly three years to punish Uddhav Thackeray but they never gave up. And in the end they succeeded.
So no matter how many times Nitish Kumar twists and turns, this is not going to be an easy ride.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.