by Ratnakar Tripathy
Even those who may want to underplay the significance of the Bihar Assembly verdict and the crushing defeat of the BJP will perforce admit that it opens up new possibilities for the parties opposed to the NDA. This seems rather undeniable when you look at the line up of the top leaders present for the swearing in ceremony of Nitish Kumar and his ministry on 20th November. But let us admit exactly what those new possibilities may be is far from clear at this point of time. The leaders were in Patna not only to express their solidarity, but also to ensure they do not miss what may turn out to be the initial palavers over the formation of a front against the NDA. Virtually no region of India remains excluded from the list apart from the BJP ruled states. After all on the very day the results were announced Lalu Yadav spoke of his plans to visit Varanasi, Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency and the site of his adopted village. He even spoke of his intent to take the Bihar battle to Delhi. Nitish however was subdued and did not join Lalu in his bravado.
The question is how substantial and feasible such plans may turn out to be in the short and the long run and whether the rise of a ‘grand alliance’ is a real possibility at all despite the ring of grandness. Or is the ‘grand alliance’ just a vestigial hangover from a period of third fronts when the national political scenario was dominated by the Congress and the BJP. Is the talk of grand alliance in other words just a sign of a short-lived euphoria occasioned by the discovery that the BJP with all its bold talk has been found to have its own vulnerabilities?
Was the Bihar Grand Alliance a Unique one-off Case?
First of all those who blindly presume the inevitable rise of a grand alliance as the only resolution to the present chain of events must make a note of the hurdles. For one the significant absences from the Patna jamboree must be noted. Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh, as well as Mayawati were not there. This does not rule out alliances in the future but it does indicate that there will be no plunging into a grand alliance by the major regional parties. There are several reasons why the grand alliance logic may not work anymore. The most outstanding reasons become apparent once you regard Bihar as a unique case rather than a rule to be replicated in the various state elections before being mounted in the parliamentary elections of 2019. Let us examine why Bihar may be a unique case.
If time and again, unlike Lalu, Nitish Kumar has made it clear that he has his eyes firmly set on Bihar and will waste no time in dreaming of a national level leadership despite the promptings from various quarters he must have very good reasons beyond a coy pretence at humility. He repeatedly used the Hindi word ‘aukat’, meaning ‘status or capacity’ denying any plans to heft himself into the position of a Prime Ministerial candidate. Ironically, during the election campaign Nitish was repeatedly attacked by BJP for ‘ahankar’ or hubris that allegedly made him dream of the top position in Delhi. Nitish a hardened realist knows he is lucky to get a third term in Bihar and must make the most of it. The fact also remains that even though Nitish’s alliance with Lalu turned out to be a great and decisive advantage, the fact remains that Nitish also lost votes among both the upper castes and the EBCs due to his association with Lalu. It is just that in retrospect the advantages far outweighed the drawbacks.
Once Lalu and Nitish decided to come together along with the Congress they put up what now seems a greater unity than even the BJP. They of course spoke in a single voice but more important they choreographed every move including division of seats and the selection of candidates in the manner of a monolithic party. This was made possible only because of a complete and unqualified surrender to the target of unity, the most significant reason behind their eventual victory. If there were disputes and wrangling, no one outside the coterie of the leaders came to hear about it. This delicate operation is not something parties can successfully execute and replicate time and again repeatedly in Assam, Bengal, UP or Punjab.
How Bihar’s Grand Alliance idea may be replicated elsewhere?
If leaders like Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, Omar Abdulla or Babulal Marandi show some keenness on making a common cause with Bihar, the reason may not be a desire for a grand alliance, but just a strategic alliance that would insulate them from the centre and the BJP and help them within the confines of their fiefs. The 2019 parliamentary elections are far off and even the Congress does not seem to be overly concerned with the distant goal so much as gaining some foothold wherever possible as partners in state governments. Similarly if a Mulayam or a Mayawati is not making a common cause with Nitish-Lalu, it may be because they don’t see how the Bihari duo will help them in the context of UP. Thus despite the qualifier ‘grand’, what these leaders may be looking for are ‘petty’, transitory but strategic and advantageous alliances that help them directly with votes or ward off the Union Government’s meddling in their day to day affairs. In brief then what we can see at this stage is a widespread attempt by the regional parties to bolster the federal spirit by keeping the hard-nosed and intrusive BJP at bay. In this sense, the grand alliance seems a feasible idea only as a defensive political mechanism with two clear targets – first to ensure that the BJP is kept out of the regional spheres of influence and control and second by constant needling and harassment at the centre through the members of the parliament, whether in the lower or the upper house. These two strategies are related intimately – if the BJP is unable to win enough seats in the state assembles its tally of Rajya Sabha members will remain short.
To conclude in the interim…
It would appear that this ‘limited’ grand alliance idea is far superior to reckless efforts at collaborations that may flounder and backfire during elections. As for the distant 2019 scenario, the NDA has achieved little so far to ensure a victory except for the fact that with a diminished Congress no other alternative has emerged in the past two years. Whether lack of alternatives is a good enough ground for BJP to bet on in 2019 remains an open question. Bihar has taught that alternatives can turn up like a rabbit out of a hat and hold their ground. Lest one forget, till a few months ago the one thing seen commonly as impossible in Bihar politics was the coming together of Lalu and Nitish. But they did and did so utterly well!