By Sajjan Kumar:
What would it be like looking at Indian politics from the vantage point of Bihar? Would it reveal any prospective political trends likely to encompass the entirety of national politics? If the history of socialist politics in the Hindi heartland holds any deterministic parameter, the answer of these questions would be ‘yes’.
Bihar, seen in the light of the shifting manifestations of socialist parties in all their forms, has always shown the trend, especially for regional parties. From being the bastion of Lohiaite politics culminating in ‘non-Congressism’ in the 1960s, to the Janata Experiment of the 1970s, the end of Congress dominance in the 1980s, the interplay of the Mandal and Kamandal discourse in the 1990s, and thereafter making a seamless rhetorical shift from ‘identity politics’ to ‘developmental politics’ since the 2000s through the cliché of the ‘Bihar Model‘, Bihar has, loudly and clearly, set the trend.
Bihar holds centrality in the emerging national political reconfiguration because it represents the pulse of the regional parties. These parties have always played a critical role in affecting the prospect of national parties and national politics as a whole.
In this backdrop, how does one view and analyse the fluidity of political events in Bihar, with Nitish Kumar as the protagonist? Does his move reveal a pattern in the apparent chaos of unexpected swings by regional parties in India, especially in the context of the 2019 general election?
These questions demand a fresh engagement with the nature and role of regional parties in contemporary India. In the post-Mandal phase, the Indian political mosaic witnessed the centrality of regional parties. Their ascendancy in national politics was romanticised as mirroring the synthesis of diversity in India, heralding a new phase of representative legitimacy, and inculcation of a national perspective among the regional parties. Pushing the argument further, many social scientists analysed their ascendancy as the rise of vernacular and subaltern politics by decentering the entrenched elitist political culture.
However, the ebbs and flows of regional parties’ political culture fly in the face of these romanticised articulations and offer a gloomy picture which doesn’t bode well for the nation’s body politic.
The dominant narrative, as thrown up by various half-baked Third Front experiments through the amalgamation of various regional parties – Janata Party (1977-79), National Front (1989-1991), and United Front (1996-1998) – happens to be a saga of murky tales and plots, reminiscent of those of “Game of Thrones”, wherein one is perpetually clueless as to who one’s friends and enemies are. Everyone happens to be in a state of constant flux. In a nutshell, as we can see from the trajectory of shifting alliances, fluidity and chaos mark the core characteristics of regional parties in India. This leads to counter-factual arguments against these romanticised takes on regional parties, as the latter present themselves as the embodiments of most brazen instrumentalities. However, far from mirroring the synthesis of diversity in India, the coming together of the regional parties has seldom achieved anything.
Further, assessed on democratic parameters, these chest-thumping self-appointed guardians of authentic democracy are found to be colossally wanting. There’s hardly any culture of inner-party democracy. The absolute diktat of the supreme leader looms large. Dynastic politics and family feuds determine the vantage point of these leaders in politics, besides personifying the most parochial identity politics possible. Their social support base is still contingent upon feudal patron-client models of politics. Admittedly, it can be argued that these symptoms are true of national parties as well. However, a cursory analysis will establish that there’s always a colossal difference of degree, if not kind, between the two.
Nitish Kumar’s shifting political alliances need to be seen in this context and must not be treated as an isolated instance. Rather, barring rare exceptions, they are part of the larger characteristics informing regional parties from J&K to Tamil Nadu, Gujarat to Bengal, and more recently, the North-Eastern states.
It needs to be said loud and clear that regional parties are driven primarily by parochial incentives. Their power politics, by structure, remain confined to their respective states. They need to maintain dominance over their rivals in their respective states. However, the quasi-federal structure of the Indian Union requires that regional parties acquire power in order to pull strings at the national arena. Thus, to have regional dominance, they form shifting alliances with national parties who seem more electable than others. This trend gets further accentuated by the fluidity of voters’ take on ideological proclamations or values of respective parties. A party’s claim to imbibe these values in order to project itself as distinct from others gets clouded in the policy-consensus among all the parties, making the former abstract and vague and the latter concrete. Ideological posturing in contemporary India is always a bundle of contradictions, signifying a rampant moral corruption, making opportunistic politics normal and normative. There’s no fear of public guilt for the vanguards.
What Nitish has done in Bihar signifies an emerging pattern that regional parties are likely to follow. He needs to be at the helm of affairs of the state perpetually. That has been the running thread in all his moves in the past. His national ambitions have always been linked to his compulsion to secure regional dominance. His exceptional positioning on the issue of ‘demonetisation’, and on the issue of ‘Bihari vs Bahri’ in 2015 – yet supporting Ram Nath Kovind over Meira Kumar, despite the latter hailing from Bihar – have a common running thread, namely, the constant maneuvering of political dynamics to create a niche for himself as the situation demands. Adaptability is the key to political survival in our fast-changing socio-political context. One needs to adapt by taking stock of fast changing political scenario, especially keeping the 2019 general elections in mind. The ascendancy of BJP as the single dominant party is the overwhelming factor most likely to figure in the prospective political calculations of the majority of the regional parties. Nitish Kumar has just taken the path that would be taken by others. The BJP’s goal of ‘Congress-Mukt-Bharat’ must pass through the intermediate phase of ‘Regional-Party-Mukt-Congress’, that is, depriving Congress of potential regional allies, as has been the case in the North-Eastern states. BJP doesn’t need to pull the strings. Most of the regional parties themselves are likely to flock to its camp before 2019. They need to align to the ruling national party to have regional dominance. Nitish has merely taken the lead in following the trend that awaits the majority of the regional parties.
Sajjan Kumar has a PhD from Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is associated with Peoples Pulse, a Hyderabad based research organization specializing in political, electoral and fieldwork based studies.
A version of this post was previously published on New Indian Express.