The change in complexion of the ruling arrangement in Patna has one and only one significance beyond Bihar: the Narendra Modi Momentum suddenly does not look irreversible. After the Enforcement Directorate-abetted coup in Maharashtra, it looked like the two Chanakyas have put a very sturdy Godrej lock on India’s political near future, and have thrown away the key. The 2024 elections looked like a done deal – but no longer, because Nitish Kumar has retrieved the key.
The Modi Momentum is predicated on a carefully manufactured psychological sentiment that over-attributes the prime minister with non-existing leadership qualities, including a charismatic hold over the national imagination. Like all psychological tricks, the Modi Momentum is sustained by continuous and relentless drum-beating about dubious achievements and doubtful competence.
As a political project the Modi Momentum is designed to make rivals and dissenters, within and outside the BJP, feel vulnerable to the prime minister’s over-sized political persona. Within the BJP, all the putative rivals – the Rajnath Singhs and the Nitin Gadkaris – have been made to feel puny and inadequate in comparison to the prime minister. Non-BJP chief ministers like Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Reddy have allowed themselves to feel intimidated, not just by the coercive reach of the central agencies but also by the prime minister’s over-hyped persona.
The importance of the change of scene in Patna is that prime minister’s bluff has been called. It was perhaps because Nitish Kumar has been such a long, steady and useful partner of the BJP in its sectarian politics; he should be credited with a certain understanding of Modi’s bag of tricks. Thick as thieves. Unlike Uddhav Thackeray, Nitish could anticipate the BJP’s moves and adroitly checkmated the great Chanakyas before they could inflict a midnight sleight of hand, à la Eknath Shinde, on him. It must be assumed that he and his new colleagues would be ready for an onslaught from the central agencies. That weapon is already overused and no longer carries with it the stigma of moral censure.
Nor is the BJP in a position to cry “betrayal” against Nitish. The BJP leadership is committed to a relentless expansionist strategy and it is not prepared to brook any kind of resistance or pockets of regional autonomy. Nitish would have, sooner or later, fallen prey to this new political megalomania of new rulers of Naya Bharat.
Nitish himself has been silently endorsing the BJP’s political dadagiri against the opposition governments, groups and leaders. The BJP has shown scant regard for any kind of constitutional norms or moral values as its managers have resorted to every dirty stratagem; a shamelessly captive media has heaped respectability on the BJP operatives for being so cunning and so successful in sabotaging other political parties and suborning loyalties. We have comfortably settled for a proposition that the winner – by hook or crook – is necessarily right, correct, ethical and moral. By this yardstick, Nitish’s so-called betrayal is all par for the course in Naya Bharat.
If nothing else, Nitish has disrupted the Modi narrative. It is too early to hazard any guess as to how his defection would help the opposition’s electoral prospects. It would be realistic to keep in mind that the BJP in Bihar is not a push over; it has a strong organisational presence, though it lacks a leadership face. The BJP is still the favourite of the entrenched, powerful social forces – consisting of upper castes and upper classes – and has considerable clout in the bureaucracy.
Last time around, Nitish allowed himself to be rattled by the distracted and distracting Yadav brothers. This time the onus would be on him to play the understanding senior mentor to the quarrelsome Lalu Yadav family. And it must be presumed that the Yadav siblings have learnt a lesson or two in the art of sincere and honest sharing of power and responsibility.
The new coalition will have to give an account of itself as a stable and cohesive arrangement, producing purposive governance. If this new partnership lasts till the 2024, its ramifications will be felt beyond Bihar. The country will need to know that Modi is not the only fulcrum of governmental stability.
The Chanakyas are not going to let the Nitish-Yadav government be. One defeat will not produce a change of heart or political humility. They will keep using all the jiggery-pokery at their command to unsettle the new arrangement. They know the Congress will overreach itself and will upset the fragile coalition. The Chanakyas are cunning enough to instigate premature talk of Nitish as the opposition’s prime ministerial face – knowing fully well that any such speculation would rattle the Congress First Family rather comprehensively.
A new BJP-mukt government in Patna mocks at the pretensions of an inexorable Modi Momentum. All across the political spectrum – regional parties, national parties, leaders and operatives – will be re-assessing the chess board and revising their strategies and calculations. A new unpredictability has been introduced in national politics. For now, the Modi spell stands broken.
Harish Khare is a journalist who lives and works in Delhi.