An impregnable fortress?
Nitish Kumar took oath as Bihar's CM for the record eighth time on Wednesday. Over the past 17 years, political equations changed and alliances were reshuffled in Bihar several times but Nitish at the helm of affairs remained constant. His success in retaining power in a politically diverse and dynamic state like Bihar can broadly be attributed to two factors — his infamous/notorious side-switching strategies and his deep-rooted political appropriation of sections of society that had been mostly left untouched before him, politically. While Nitish's side-switching reflects his astute political management that has lent him a winning edge over the erstwhile coalition partner BJP, the recent developments in Bihar have political consequences far beyond the individual prowess of Bihar's longest serving CM. In the first place, in a single political masterstroke, Nitish has ensured that Bihar stands out as one of the last frontiers against the right-wing BJP in the northern belt. The RJD-JDU alliance, as for now and for a long time to come (if it exists), may prove to be an unassailable fort. Neither any wave nor any high-brand national political face can lay claim to power in Bihar if these two parties decide to remain together. The reason is the complex caste configuration that forms the cornerstone of any election in the state. Lagging behind on various development parameters, there is so much to offer to economically and socially backward sections of society in Bihar, who are often assuaged by little incentives and benefits. This is where both the parties — the RJD and the JDU — have formed their forte over decades. While Lalu Yadav-led RJD dominated in the 1990s and the first half of 2000s by appropriating, and working for the upliftment of, the OBCs in the state, Nitish Kumar went a step further after he assumed power in 2005. He was smart enough to realize that there were strata even below the OBC, and he consolidated his base among new classes of voters in the name of EBCs and Mahadalits. Over the past 15 years, Nitish has been effortlessly making marginal improvements to their lives to gain undeterred political backing. Among Mahadalits, there is a political loyalty of sorts for the Nitish-led JDU. It may be pertinent here to point out that both Nitish and Lalu had their roots in the socialist movement led by Jaiprakash Narayan during the 1970s, and they still firmly represent the socialist idea. The reason that this idea is still breathing in Bihar, when other states are more or less shedding it, is that there is a need for it in the state. The socio-economic backwardness of Bihar makes it suitable for socialist politics, which both JDU and the RJD have mastered over decades. Against this stands the nationalist politics of the BJP. Apparently, nationalist politics reverberates in Bihar also — but in limited pockets and with certain caveats. If the BJP has been trying to set its foot in Bihar, Nitish's exit from the NDA alliance is perhaps a big blow. It has brought the BJP back to square one, from where it will have to start all over again. One may argue that the BJP had emerged with the single-largest-party tag after the 2019 assembly election which, of course, was replaced by the RJD later. The counter argument is that in 2019, the vote convertibility factor played in the favour of the BJP because it was with Nitish Kumar's JDU. If the BJP has to spread its wings in Bihar in the long-term, it will have to explore options among smaller parties that represent socialist politics. For the present, the RJD-JDU regional combine, supported by the Communist parties and the Congress, is good enough to outclass the BJP. In terms of national politics, Bihar — with a total 40 Lok Sabha seats — may act as a speed-breaker for the BJP juggernaut in the north. Can it send ripples in the neighbouring UP for the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party to come together? It is still unanswerable. One thing is certain that by breaking away from the NDA, Nitish Kumar has triggered speculation that his name may be added to the list of BJP-opposed politicians who are aspiring for the PM's chair. Nitish Kumar has hardly anything left to prove in the state politics, he may be eying to shine on the national firmament. Given his political flexibility, and ready-to-assimilate persona, he cannot be discounted as a contender! The biggest question, however, is how long will caste fragmentation and subjugation in Bihar keep serving the political ambitions of its leaders. If the RJD-JDU can deliver on what they represent, it will be a true success. Nitish, in particular, has a chance to leave behind a legacy that will be remembered by people.