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Implications of the Nitish Kumar flip-flop

LiveMint logoLiveMint 30-07-2017 Anil Padmanabhan

Over a span of a few hours, somewhere between three and four, politics was turned on its head in Bihar last week. Nitish Kumar, the incumbent chief minister, decided to dump his enemy-turned-ally, Lalu Prasad and his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and hitch his fortunes with ally-turned-enemy, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Consequently, on Friday, Kumar was back in the chair as the chief minister, but with the BJP as his coalition partner.

To say this abrupt reversal of circumstances was stunning is an understatement. It is much more. The ramifications of this development are likely to go far beyond Bihar; it is catalysing the rewriting of national politics in an unprecedented manner.

For one, Kumar’s flip-flop has only reinforced BJP’s credentials as the new pole of Indian politics. With its audacious win in the 16th general election, the BJP had signalled this makeover was in the offing. The unexpectedly rapid implosion of a demoralised Congress thereafter ensured that the BJP very quickly extended its electoral footprint across the country by winning a string of assembly elections.

Missing in the crown were Bihar and Delhi—in both of which the BJP suffered humiliating defeats. Now only Delhi survives, akin to the mythical Gaul village immortalised in Asterix comics which defied Roman dominance; given its own internal dynamics it is to be seen how long the Aam Aadmi Party keeps out the saffron wave.

Second, Kumar has now unequivocally put himself in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s corner. It is no secret that it was in opposition to the ascendancy of Modi that he had severed his alliance with the BJP to embrace the RJD. By re-signing with the BJP, that is totally dominated by Modi, Kumar has effectively accepted the leadership of the Prime Minister. Worse, the chief minister, in the manner and alacrity with which he switched sides and burnt bridges, has hardly covered himself in glory. Yes, he has saved his job, but he has left himself politically vulnerable.

Third, implicitly though, Kumar has endorsed the anti-corruption crusader image of Modi. With demonetisation as well as the sustained targeting of black money and lately of benaami properties, Modi has owned the anti-corruption fighter tag. By exiting his alliance with RJD on the issue of corruption and teaming up with the BJP, Kumar, who has his own record of anti-corruption fights, is signalling to the electorate that Modi is best suited for this fight.

Fourth, the political action in Bihar has ripped the heart out of the opposition. In Kumar, the opposition was beginning to see a rallying point. Unless the opposition—read Congress—is able to pull one back in the next round of assembly elections due by the end of the year, the chances of regrouping before the 2019 Lok Sabha poll look rather bleak. They may be better off devoting their resources to stop the BJP juggernaut locally with the help of some powerful regional leaders rather than nationally.

Fifth, it poses serious questions for the Congress afresh. Not just because they lost another state where they were in power. But as to what it has done so far in trying to contain an ascendant BJP and its strategy for the future. It is obvious that the mom and pop business model employed to run the Congress party is an outdated business model. The ongoing drama involving its legislators in Gujarat is another reminder of a rapidly worsening situation.

In the final analysis, it is clear that the BJP is still ascending politically. The good news for the opposition is that you don’t have to believe in Newton to know that what ascends has to descend. But the bad news is that there is no finite time period that is immediately apparent; it could be five years, 10 years or whatever.

Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.

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