Nitish's ATOM Politics May Well Set Contours of Confrontation for the Next Election
The road to good intentions is paved with hellfire. Any foolproof planning in Indian politics missing a clear roadmap promises more chances of failure than fortune. Slogans can ignite riots but cannot deliver victory in war. Without even waiting for the outcome of the recent Assembly polls, Bihar CM Nitish Kumar has announced his vision and mission with sass and sauce. PM Narendra Modi wants a Congress Mukt (Congress-free) India, but Nitish has blown the bugle for all non-BJP parties to gather under his banner to establish a Sangh Mukt Bharat (RSS-free Bharat) to save the democracy.
Nitish began his first stint as the JD(U) chief with the ideological intention to polarise the two national parties along political groupings. His clarion cry appears to have united all non-BJP parties to oust Modi in 2019. But both his admirers and detractors are baffled about this hurry in going public. Is he convinced that Modi is losing charisma and acceptability faster than anyone expected? But Nitish’s moves clearly reveal that he has declared war on the Saffron Parivar. He has projected himself as the only credible alternative to Modi. His promoters are convinced that he is as clean as the PM. They feel his Vikas Purush tag is equally convincing if not more than Modi’s.
Since Nitish has the advantage of rallying the minorities behind him and attracting a load of liberal and secular middle class votes, they have decided to demolish the PM’s core credentials. He had venomously said, “Management is more important than event management.” It is evident that Nitish has drawn up his field guide well and formulated a strategy for a long-drawn-out battle. He had made an attempt to forge a Bihar-type Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) in Assam, but failed after the Congress refused to surrender its space.
The timing and tone, however, of the Bihar CM’s declaration are interesting. He, along with RJD chief Lalu Prasad, sprang a surprise by stopping the Modi juggernaut in the state by scoring a decisive victory over the BJP in 2015. While the BJP’s defeat raised questions over its invincibility and Modi’s popularity, it also emboldened Nitish to extend the Bihar experiment to other parts of the country. He is aware of the ground reality that almost all the non-BJP parties, including the Left, are feeling insecure under Modi’s dispensation. The Congress dreads the lethal use of government apparatus to not only topple its governments in smaller states, but also to dig up dirty pasts of many of its senior leaders and former and current CMs. To add fuel to the fire, the Modi government is moving at bullet train speed to dismantle all the institutions controlled by the Left and anti-RSS elements.
In reality, Modi’s direct confrontation with non-BJP parties, including some of its regional allies, is creating a favourable environment for the creation of a political alternative. Historically, credible substitutes have emerged against powerful personalities and their actions, which their opponents projected as a threat to democracy. Nitish’s plan is to portray Modi as an intolerant and arrogant leader, who along with the RSS, his ideological mentor, poses a serious threat to the nation’s unity and secular character. In 1977, Jaiprakash Narayan brought all non-Congress parties together to oust Indira Gandhi after she imposed the Emergency and suspended fundamentals rights.
Parties, from the north to the south, sacrificed their partisan interests with the singular aim of defeating the Congress and demolishing Indira’s leviathan leadership. The experiment lasted for less than 30 months, as the elements, which came together to challenge her, started to squabble. The first ever anti-Congress initiative died an untimely death with Indira’s triumphant return to power in 1980.
For the next nine years, the Congress once again acquired total control over national politics. It won most of the state polls in 1980 and later harvested a record number of over 400 seats in the Lok Sabha after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Rajiv Gandhi was seen as an agent of change for a better India. But his charm faded even earlier than his promoters expected. Once again, corruption emerged as the ubiquitous glue to bring all the non-Congress parties, from the CPI(M) to the BJP, occupy a single platform to remove Rajiv and his coterie. There was a difference though. Unlike 1977 when the Janata Party plunged into the electoral battle without a PM candidate, the Opposition fought the 1989 election under the leadership of Congress rebel V P Singh who enjoyed a reputation for impeccable integrity. Their motto: defeat Rajiv, who was leading a corrupt government.
For the next decade, Central governments were formed on the basis of opportunistic alliances in which individuals, not ideology, played a decisive role. But Modi changed the rules of the political battle. Soon after winning the Gujarat elections in 2012, he planned his move in advance to take over 7 Race Course. He tried to bring smaller parties together, with the weak Manmohan Singh—who was protecting and leading a corrupt government—as his target. It was for the first time that a Lok Sabha election was turned into a Presidential election by another name, in which Team Modi converted the war into a struggle between the indomitable, clean development man Modi versus Manmohan. Modi won without even a symbolic fight.
Today Nitish wants to convert the next Lok Sabha election into a conflict between two individuals backed by distinctive ideologies. He tried to lead the anti-BJP coalition when he left the NDA in 2013. It failed to take off. Even now, his resolve to forge an ATOM (alternative to Modi) has run into hurdles posed by leaders like Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav, a section of the Congress and other regional leaders. At the moment, Nitish enjoys the full backing of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee. But they can also put spanners in his works in progress, and both are unacceptable to the Congress. Moreover, the Congress wouldn’t like anyone to give the impression that it has accepted Nitish over Rahul to lead the anti-Modi campaign. Rahul has the advantage over Nitish since his party and family are still a draw across the country. Nitish, however, has defined the contours of confrontation for the next election. The Opposition not only wishes Modi would lose his sheen, but also expects 900 million voters to give a chance to another individual, ignoring the absence of an ideological identity. For now, however, it is an uneven battle between the omnipresent Modi, the vaguely visible Nitish and the occasionally visible Rahul Gandhi.