Ship part

Jumping NES ship was easy for Nitish Kumar, but building an anti-Modi armada would be tough

In calling for a united opposition to take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024, Nitish Kumar has sought to give ideological flavor to his defection from the NDA. Indeed, the act was pure political expediency, and uninformed by any grand strategy to upset the NES apple cart.

Nitish has only turned his coat around, driven by a perceived existential threat to his party. To make his realpolitik more digestible for voters, he sought to position the BJP-JD(U) split in Bihar as a champion of democratic values. And willy-nilly, the increasingly desperate anti-Modi brigade presented him as the great white hope of the opposition.

Can Nitish keep his mahagathbandhan together in Bihar itself? While he has succeeded in uniting the RJD, friend-turned-foe-turned-friend, JD(U), the left, and Congress under a common umbrella, maintaining the alliance will require skillful management of his partners. Especially in light of the fact that he has very little room to manoeuvre, now that he has closed the doors of the BJP.

If he succeeds, it will certainly cost the BJP dearly. Considering the social geography of Bihar, the mahagathbandhan can easily triumph, as in simple terms of electoral calculation, it holds around 50% of the popular vote. Nitish carefully cultivated the EBCs, which make up a quarter of the state’s population, while the RJD maintained its grip on the MY vote.

The question is whether the alliance can be extended to cover more than one state. A range of contrasting agendas and interests disunites the opposition. Is it possible to bring them to the same platform? In politics, anything is possible, and certainly the very fact of Nitish’s defection from the ruling NDA strengthens the opposition and creates pressure for unity.

But Nitish, the hard-headed socialist, is well aware that he cannot superimpose regional parties without a credible counter-narrative to the BJP. Regional parties need an overarching issue that can subsume their differences in a single-point campaign. Currently, no such problem exists. Moreover, to market itself to the electorate as a viable alternative, the opposition must decisively differentiate its political “product” from that of the BJP. What are the possibilities ?

The tired plank of “secularism versus communalism,” basically a left-wing principle internalized by Congress and caste parties, no longer finds subscribers at all levels. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Shiv Sena, for example, would be inclined to leave aside the anti-Hindutva movement. Neither needs or wants to beat the drum of secularism, especially at a time when the very concepts of secularism and multiculturalism are being challenged around the world.

Despite rising prices and inflation, the economy has not reached an inflection point. It therefore offers no electoral leverage. Unemployment, too, has limited appeal in the face of the elaborate architecture of welfarism built by the Modi government. Indeed, despite all its problems, India with its robust agricultural production seems to be a success story compared to the rest of South Asia. Nor is there a credible example of corruption; the spectacular failure of the “chowkidar chor hai” campaign is a good example.

Can Mandal 2.0 serve as the issue of the day? This brings us to the BJP’s OBC-centric election strategy, which effectively dismantled Mandal 1.0. The long-standing MY (Muslim-Yadav) coalition of Mandal parties has not resisted the caste consolidation of the BJP and the Hindutva board. In national elections, the BJP won the largest share of OBC votes (44% in 2019), although in national elections, OBC voters tend to lean towards regional parties.

For example, in neighboring Uttar Pradesh, which accounts for 20% of the BJP’s Lok Sabha seats, the Samajwadi party made gains in assembly elections earlier this year, likely snatching some of the non- Yadav OBC, but not enough to make a dent.

Regional parties are keen on a caste census, for the simple reason that it is bound to generate new numbers and trigger a new round of social justice campaigns – precisely why the BJP is against it. RJD leader and Bihar deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav sought to unite opposition parties on the issue last year, but failed. In any event, it has little resonance outside UP and Bihar and most non-BJP chief ministers are neutral on the subject.

Absent a counter-story, the opposition will have to make a colossal effort to come together, sinking personal egos and crafting a common agenda. Until then, even maintaining state-level alliances, such as the mahagathbandhan in Bihar, will prove a challenge.

Bhavdeep Kang is a freelance writer and author of ‘Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas’ and ‘Just Transferred: The Untold Story of Ashok Khemka’. A journalist since 1986, she has written extensively on national politics. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.

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