Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 high-value notes would be withdrawn on November 8, the public outrage that followed offered the Opposition parties an opportunity to come together to form an alliance against the Bharatiya Janata Party.
But the Opposition failed to grab this opportunity for two reasons. First, because the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party followed a wait-and-watch approach due to the impending Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, and second, due to the conflicting aspirations of some regional party leaders.
One of the most vocal Opposition voices in support of demonetisation is that of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. This is despite his alliance partner, Lalu Prasad Yadav, severely criticising the policy.
Kumar’s comments have heightened speculation about the relationship his Janata Dal (United) has with Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, and also with former alliance partner, the BJP.
While Kumar’s support for demonetisation may not lead to an immediate divorce between the ruling allies in Bihar, his stance, and the BJP’s projection of Kumar as the supporter of the policy, necessitates serious reflection.
BJP growth in Bihar
Kumar’s support for demonetisation thwarts the possibility of a united national Opposition that he would have ideally wanted to lead. It also compels anti-BJP forces to rethink how they could go about their opposition to the policy.
Prior to Kumar becoming Bihar chief minister in 2015, the BJP was not a potent political force in Bihar. Its total vote percentage put it way behind the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which had emerged as the representative of backward castes and minorities in the state.
Lalu Yadav’s powerful anti-upper caste rhetoric and committed anti-BJP politics made his party a potent political force. His making as a powerful leader was helped by his performative skills through which he demeaned the largely upper caste bureaucracy, contractors, and criminals. His idiom and performance touched a chord with Dalits as well as with the upwardly-mobile backward castes seeking political power. This is something Kumar could never replicate.
This mass support for Yadav was also supplemented by what many people, including Muslims, saw as his heroism when, as Bihar chief minister in 1990, Yadav ordered the state police to arrest BJP leader LK Advani during the Bihar leg of his countrywide rath yatra. This was seen as an important milestone for secular politics, and led to Rashtriya Janata Dal rule in the state over most of the next 15 years. However, the party could not comprehend the socio-economic changes that even its support base was experiencing. This led to its crushing defeat in 2005 at the hands of the National Democratic Alliance led by Nitish Kumar. It was Kumar, along with the BJP, who succeeded in articulating the concerns of the electorate – promising the backward caste elite more economic opportunities through better governance and policy-making.
During the next 10 years, the Right expanded in Bihar as seen in the shift in vote percentage in the chart below.
One reason for this growth could be that unlike during Yadav’s reign, compelling anti-Right rhetoric was absent during the Kumar-led regime even as the BJP influenced the masses using the state apparatus.
Unlike earlier temporal shifts in vote banks, the growth of the BJP in India has been a processual phenomenon. This kind of expansion is more enduring in nature since the reason behind such an electoral expansion is accompanied by an ideological expansion through cadre-based organisations such as the Sangh Parivar.
This has occurred in Bihar too as is well reflected in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s assertion to open shakhas across villages and panchayats in the state.
One must remember how localised rioting took place in Bihar before the 2015 Assembly elections. The free hand Kumar gave Hindutva politics then was a trade-off that he had to get into because he heads a political organisation that does not have a strong cadre base, and the BJP used him well to expand its own mass base with the help of the Sangh Parivar.
The expansion of the BJP has taken place to a great extent among the upper caste community in Bihar. However, the party’s efforts to woo the Dalit and backward castes have not been as successful. Thus, as a stop-gap arrangement, the BJP has been forced to accommodate backward caste leaders like Ram Vilas Paswan and Ram Kripal Yadav, who were proven political liabilities in the Assembly polls, in the government at the Centre.
In the run-up to the Assembly elections, Kumar’s history of being a National Democratic Alliance minister (in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government), and then a trusted BJP ally in Bihar did not create a comfortable electoral situation for the Janata Dal (United) leader despite his sudden rhetoric against Modi. At the same time, Lalu Yadav still had the potential to mobilise a large section of the backward castes (specifically the Yadavs) and the minorities. Yadav had also realised by then that his flirtation with the upper castes by allotting ministries and contracts to its members during his regime could not save him from a humiliating defeat at the hands of Kumar.
By 2015, due to the committed backing of the Sangh Parivar, the BJP firmly entrenched itself among the upper castes in Bihar. Given the national rise of Modi and the fragmentation of the backward and Dalit vote there was a possibility that a BJP government would come to power in the state. The Rashtriya Janata Dal also needed a lease of life after 10 years out of power, and the result was the coming together of two political forces, Kumar and Yadav.
Kumar broke with the BJP not so much because of Modi’s Hindutva politics but because he knew that the growth of the saffron party in Bihar could overshadow him, and he needed to have at least one tiny bastion to himself to bargain in national politics.
Kumar is known to harbour aspirations to lead a government at the Centre. He can do that only if he has a steady electoral support base in Bihar. The vote percentage for Kumar’s party has decreased after 2010. But unlike Yadav, Kumar lacks steadfast caste-based support and the support of minority communities.
Thus, at a time when civil society groups and Opposition political parties have largely agreed that demonetisation has been anti-poor, why would Kumar take steps that will align him with the same political force he was fighting against in the 2015 election?
By his support to demonetisation, Kumar is making a statement at two levels.
First, he is trying to fracture the possibility of a national coalition even in an embryonic form because he wants such a coalition to happen under his leadership. After coming to power Kumar talked about the need for a national anti-BJP coalition.
It is noteworthy that his political control over Bihar is weaker than West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Bannerjee’s control over Bengal politics. Kumar possibly wants to tell other regional formations (such as Banerjee perhaps) that he would not work as a secondary force in a coalition. Second, Kumar has to hold a bargaining chip with his local partner, the Rashtriya Janata Dal.
However, this might backfire against the Bihar chief minister. Kumar is surviving only because Yadav no longer holds the same iron grip over his party and has fallen victim to familial quibbles. Had Yadav been in a much stronger position as he was in the past, Kumar would have found himself in trouble over his support for Modi’s policy. His support for demonetisation holds value for the future of an anti-BJP coalition as leaders from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal will all be key players along with the emergent Aam Aadmi Party in such an alliance.