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After the Bihar storm

Post the Bihar election results, new political formations are on the anvil. And it is the anti-BJPism that will drive these formations as the Congress has certainly ceded political space to its prime rival

BIHAR has once again changed the paradigm: in 1917, Champaran set the tone for the freedom struggle; in 1974, the JP movement heralded the end of Congress hegemony at the Centre; in 2015, the fiercely contested Assembly poll has set a new course for contemporary political discourse with anti-BJPism as the focal point.

Stock markets have a concept of course correction; overvalued blue chip stocks sometimes come crashing to ultimately recover and reach their optimal levels. The Bihar outcome should be seen as an opportunity for course correction by the BJP under Narendra Modi. The euphoria of the 2014 triumph has somewhat evaporated. Modi had created hope and thereby generated respect. Eighteen months later, the promise of achhe din is providing grist for mockery. The Modi government has made a difference, but that difference is overshadowed by incessant political sabre-rattling by the ruling party and a resultant sniping by the opposition. Rising prices, inter alia, have made the government’s achievements opaque.

The BJP has now definitively emerged as the pivot of Indian politics, a niche hitherto occupied by the Congress. The swearing-in of Nitish Kumar saw a revival of anti-polarisation in Indian politics of the kind witnessed in the late 1960s, the 1970s and even in the first half of the decade of the 1980s

The Delhi Assembly result was apparently taken lightly. For the BJP, its Achilles’ heel is Amit Shah-style functioning. This has caused murmuring in its ranks. Post-Bihar, Modi’s proud claim of chappan-inch-ka-seena is being challenged (a social media post said 3 in Delhi and 53 in Bihar made up for chhappan). However, the fact remains that the BJP has now definitively emerged as the pivot of Indian politics, a niche hitherto occupied by the Congress. The swearing-in of Nitish Kumar saw a revival of anti-polarisation in Indian politics of the kind witnessed in the late 1960s, the 1970s and even in the first half of the decade of the 1980s, when anti-Congressism was a binding factor. The credo of anti-BJPism emerged in Patna.

For the Congress, which snatched a moment of glory by riding piggy-back in Bihar, the path ahead is arduous. Party general secretary CP Joshi, citing Bihar, said recently that after the West Bengal poll in 2016 (where he hopes to forge an understanding, if not alliance, with the Trinamool Congress) the Congress will emerge as the “kingmaker”. Joshi perhaps unwittingly foretold the future—the Congress can no longer produce a king, it has to limit its role to that of a kingmaker. It can be a lever in coalitions, not the fulcrum. The debate in Parliament on the Constitution anniversary showed that the Congress has more adversaries than the BJP has critics. Foes rarely turn friends; critics can be converted.

The BJP and the Congress are the two nationwide formations today. Strong regional parties, many of whom have an umbilical link with the Congress, have dug in deep. In any Lok Sabha election today, only in around 180 of the 542 seats is the contest between the BJP and the Congress—the rest of the seats see multipolar fights which tend to be skewed in favour of regional forces. Nitish’s coronation saw a jamboree of these forces, with the Congress basking in reflected glory.

The talk about stability of the new Nitish regime began as soon as he was sworn in. However, the event provided a fine opportunity for back-slapping and bonhomie. It will not be wrong to say that the Queen Bee who emerged at Patna was Mamata Banerjee. The tea party hosted by the new CM was apparently organised at the suggestion of Mamata. She reached Patna early that day. Before the swearing-in, she had tea with Arvind Kejriwal at the Maurya Hotel, from where she and Kejriwal strolled to the adjacent venue in Gandhi Maidan. At the tea reception, she shared a sofa with Rahul Gandhi and even ordered a soft drink of his choice, making him remark that she remembers everything. Later, at the airport, on seeing Mamata on the tarmac, Rahul yelled, “Mamataji!” and left his aircraft to greet her again. From Nitish’s CM bungalow, Mamata walked to Lalu Prasad Yadav’s home, a short distance away, and spent time with his family.

WHILE Nitish as giantkiller certainly has his shadow cast on the national arena, it is Mamata who is to be watched in the years to come. She is acceptable to a wide spectrum—both non-Congress and the non-BJP formations, as well as the large number of regional formations of former Congresspersons. KCR of Telangana was once a Youth Congress officebearer. Ditto for his next-door rival, Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP. Both the CM and the Leader of Opposition in Andhra Pradesh, who heads the YSR Congress, are from the Congress stable. For the Congress, which is bound to remain a player on the national scene, its truncated numbers notwithstanding, it will be a Hobson’s choice between Mamata and Nitish. It remains to be seen if Rahul, whose emergence as Congress President now seems a certainty, will have the advantage of saner advice or if his present team of advisers will prevail.

Post the 2014 defeat, Rahul has rebooted. Perhaps in the style of North Korea’s “Great Successor”, Kim Jong-un, he disappeared from the public eye for nearly two months last year. When he returned, he was a changed person. But, that change is perceivable to his partymen (those who get access to him) and not to the people at large. The recent interaction with students of a college in Bengaluru, where the youth vehemently disagreed with his perception of the Modi sarkar, shows the chasm.

In his autobiography, Chinar Leaves, ML Fotedar recalled that in 1984, Indira Gandhi felt that Priyanka Gandhi would emerge as the heir and upholder of her tradition when she grew up. Fotedar claims that he had conveyed this to Rajiv Gandhi and later Sonia Gandhi, but he was dismissed. There is no sibling rivalry between Rahul and Priyanka. There is an undercurrent in the Congress, especially in Uttar Pradesh, that Priyanka should be assigned the role of organising the party’s campaign in UP in 2017. If she emerges, Priyanka may prove to be the person who may revive the sagging Congress.

For Narendra Modi, who has run an unblemished regime for 18 months, it must be confusing to balance the Modi-mania among Indians abroad and the Modi-bashing at home. The debate on secularism, triggered by his Home Minister, may cause a hiatus for his new reconciliatory stance. In his Wembley speech in London, Modi singled out Imran Khan of Alwar for highlighting an Indian with vision; in his Mann Ki Baat he praised Noor Jehan of Kanpur. Post-Bihar, Modi seems to be in a mood to negotiate and capitulate.

Political rivalry can be settled at the hustings. In the interim, good governance demands effective cooperative federalism, a slogan on which the BJP got the 2014 mandate.

The author is a former national-level Editor. He served as Senior Consultant in the Planning Commission.

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