Post break-up with BJP, can Nitish sustain social coalition?

As I see it

For the political journalist who thrives on caste arithmetic, Bihar is perhaps the last refuge. Even on a whistle-stop visit to Patna to interview the Bihar chief minister, every conversation veers to the impact of  Nitish Kumar’s decision to part ways with the BJP. For the rest of India, the battle maybe couched  as a Nitish versus Narendra Modi personality clash; in Bihar, it is seen through the prism of caste. The big question being asked is: can Nitish sustain the social coalition he has so assiduously cultivated in the last decade or will the break-up with the BJP create a new caste and community matrix?

Which is why no trip to Bihar is complete without meeting the original master of  the caste calculus: RJD chief, Lalu Prasad. These aren’t the best of times for Lalu. There is a strong possibility he will be convicted and jailed in the fodder scam next month. His party has shrunk and despite a recent win in the Maharajganj by-election, the fact is, his political fortunes are at a low ebb. But his generosity of spirit is intact. Over endless cups of nimbu chai, Lalu surrounded by a handful of acolytes, questions Nitish’s commitment to ‘’secularism”. “ I am the original secularist, baaki sab nautanki hai,” he says with a unique style reminiscent of  his glory days.

That ‘’glorious” period of  Lalu Raj was in the 1990s when Bihar’s politics underwent a dramatic shift. With the unflinching support of  his Yadav caste, Lalu inverted Bihar’s caste pyramid, creating a new power structure that broke the stranglehold of  the Brahmin-Bhumihar-Kayastha leadership. The state’s 16 per cent Yadavs were supported by an 18 per cent Muslim vote, making MY an almost unbeatable combination. A critical element in this transformation was Lalu’s decision to arrest BJP leader LK Advani during his Rath Yatra in 1990. “I was the only one with the guts to arrest Advani,” claims Lalu, “No Muslim in Bihar has ever forgotten that.”

Contrasting personalities

Is 2013, 1990 all over again? Can Nitish do a Lalu by winning the hearts and minds of  Bihar’s Muslims with his decision to break with the BJP over Narendra Modi’s elevation? Will Modi be to Nitish what Advani was to Lalu, a political hate figure who can be used to consolidate the Muslim vote in his favour? On the face of it, you cannot get two more than Nitish and Lalu. Both emerged from the womb of  the JP anti-Emergency students’ movement of  the 1970s. Both are children of  the Mandal revolution, and yet, both are literally chalk and cheese. Lalu was always the more charismatic, flamboyant mass leader, a great communicator who revelled in the glare of the camera. Nitish was, by contrast, a soft-spoken political thinker and strategist, deeply uncomfortable with the overt machismo of  the Lalu brand of politics. Nitish was always a bit of a loner, Lalu revelled in the company of sycophants. Lalu was a dynast, keen to perpetuate family rule where Nitish deliberately kept his family away from politics. Lalu’s politics was driven by election rhetoric; Nitish was offering administrative efficiency.

In a sense, it was easier for Lalu to play the caste game at election time because he belonged to a dominant backward caste and had the personality to impose himself on his loyal following. Nitish, by contrast, was from the numerically smaller and scattered Kurmi community and therefore needed to invest much more time and effort in building a social structure that would include the extremely backward castes, the Mahadalits and the backward Muslims. Even then, he needed the support of  the BJP’s traditional upper castes before he could aspire to topple his partner turned rival, Lalu.

Which is why Nitish, without the BJP, has taken a high risk gamble. Not only does he risk   alienating the upper castes who had helped decimate the Lalu regime, but also he now will have to compete with Lalu for the affection of  the Muslim vote. The Bihari Muslim has traditionally felt economically deprived and socially discriminated. He doesn’t harbour any notions of ruling class grandeur like a section of  the UP Muslim might. Lalu gave the Bihari Muslim a feeling of physical security but little else. He could not provide them a sense of real empowerment that comes only with quality education and jobs.

Nitish is offering a paradigm shift in this traditional political model of wooing the Muslim through hand-outs and sloganeering. Yes, there is the ritualistic symbolism that he too will observe with iftaar parties and wearing a topi. And yes, he is also holding the bogie of  Modi as prime minister to scare Muslims. But he is also talking of  “inclusive” governance and of making the Bihari Muslim an integral part of  the state’s growth story. The vaulting aspirations of  Bihar’s gen-next have meant that Muslims too need to be provided more than just Modi-bashing to be wooed.

(The writer is editor in chief, IBN 18 network)

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