That the Monsoon Session of Parliament would literally and metaphorically be washed out is hardly a surprise. The political opponents of the Bharatiya Janata Party were determined to use the same tactics deployed by it when the party was out of power for a decade. In the coming three months, attention will be focused less on Delhi’s durbar politics and more on the battle for Bihar. The outcome of the Assembly elections in the state will undoubtedly have a significant bearing on the near-term trajectory of national politics.
If the BJP and its allies manage to scrape through with a victory over the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal combine led by Nitish Kumar, the current chief minister of Bihar, against current predictions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters will become more emboldened than before to project him as the supreme leader of the Second Republic of India. But, if the BJP fails to come to power in Bihar, as appears likely at present, Mr Modi will perforce have to recast his party’s right-wing, corporate-friendly policies and become more populist.
Mr Modi and finance minister Arun Jaitley have realised that they will not be able to amend the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, to make it pro-business in the way they wanted. They are worried the “anti-farmer” and “anti-poor” tags would stick to them. The economic policies of the BJP and the Congress — the two largest political parties in the country which together account for around half the popular vote — were often similar. The failure of the BJP to win the Bihar elections will make their economic policies resemble each other even more closely.
But wait! There’s a crucial difference between the BJP and the Congress and that is the “M” factor. The overwhelming majority of India’s Muslims (accounting for around 14 per cent of the country’s population) don’t trust the BJP. An electoral loss in Bihar may make Mr Modi turn leftwards in terms of economic policies but could simultaneously lead to him to re-emphasise the Hindutva agenda of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Mr Modi has so far chosen to ignore the rabid remarks of the hardliners in the Sangh Parivar even as he has sought to present a more “inclusive” image of himself. He might, in the years ahead, be less circumspect in furthering the social agenda of the RSS.
External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was never Mr Modi’s best friend in the BJP. Yet, he cannot accede to the demands of those baying for her blood after her controversial efforts at “helping” former cricket czar Lalit Modi became known. Similarly, Mr Modi cannot do anything against Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, whose son’s sweetheart deals with the “other” Modi can be compared with the land transactions involving Robert Vadra. Silence is the only option for our otherwise loquacious Prime Minister.
Mr Modi cannot also change the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, although the Vyapam scandal — relating to widespread corruption in admissions to educational institutions and bribes for government jobs — threatens to careen out of control. Like his predecessor Manmohan Singh, Mr Modi cannot hear, see or speak about any evil within his party.
The term of this government is till May 2019. A lot can, and will, happen before then. The vice-president of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, who celebrated his 45th birthday recently on June 19, will necessarily have to continue along the overly aggressive path that he has chosen. Not for him the controlled aggression of his mother who publicly chided Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor for suggesting that the proceedings of Parliament not be disrupted. The young Gandhi is speaking the language of the Left.
Mr Gandhi has no choice but to try and get rid of the public perception about him as a spoilt brat and a diffident politician trying to make half-hearted attempts to revive India’s “grand old party”, which is today weaker than it has ever been. How long will he have the tenacity to sweat it out on the slushy streets of Indian politics? Having succeeded in convincing RJD’s Lalu Prasad Yadav to take a backseat, will he be now become an able advocate Mr Kumar? His campaign programme in Bihar will be closely watched.
The pictures of the Mr Kumar are splashed across hoardings in Patna. But Bihar is not Patna. During the 2014 general elections, the BJP’s spin doctors successfully converted India’s multi-party democracy into an American-style presidential contest between two personalities who were supposed to be above their respective political parties. It was a tussle between Mr Modi and Mr Gandhi and we all know who won hands down.
But the personalisation of politics is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. Barely nine months after the BJP swept the Lok Sabha elections, few could have imagined that the Aam Admi Party, led by Arvind Kejriwal, would comprehensively decimate the saffron party with its vote share dropping by almost a fifth in the national capital of Delhi. There are important lessons in this outcome for Mr Kumar as well as the BJP which has not pitted yet another Modi against the chief minister, that is, Sushil Kumar Modi, who was Bihar’s deputy chief minister before Mr Kumar broke JD(U)’s coalition with the BJP in June 2013.
Mr Kumar has to not only convince a large section of his state’s voters that he is a good administrator, he also has to persuade them to vote for his coalition and ditch the one led by the BJP, despite the fact that he remained aligned to the party for 17 long years when Mr Yadav was his principal political opponent.
Mr Kumar was Union minister for railways in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government when the post-Godhra Hindu-Muslim riots took place in 2002. He now detests the “communal” BJP under Mr Modi. That’s not his only “mistake”. He has publicly apologised for his decision to appoint Jitan Ram Manjhi — who embarrassed him no end and is predictably now with the BJP — as chief minister of Bihar.
Mr Yadav may have decided to support Mr Kumar but the real challenge is to ensure that the cadre of the RJD and JD(U) work together on the ground and ensure that the votes of the RJD’s traditional supporters are “transferred” to candidates of the new coalition. Caste configurations are complex in this economically backward state of eastern India. Still, a big question remains. Can Bihar show the way for anti-BJP political forces to come together?
The writer is an educator and commentator