In a shocking u-turn, a political alliance that had governed India’s third most populous state, Bihar, came apart yesterday. The state’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, leader of a local party, the Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)), was formerly an ally of India’s current ruling party at the national level, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, until 2013. Kumar then turned against the BJP in protest of their elevation of Modi, whom he compared to Adolf Hitler. In 2015, a mahagathbandhan, or grand alliance, between several “secular” parties in the state came together to form an alliance to defeat the BJP in local elections. Along with the JD(U), the dominant party in the alliance, the alliance included the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party at the national level, and the local Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), led by the perennially corrupt Lalu Prasad Yadav.
This corruption was the alleged reason that Nitish Kumar switched his party’s allegiance from the grand alliance to a new alliance with the BJP. Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav, the son of Lalu Prasad Yadav, was accused of corruption, but would not resign from his position, prompting Kumar to instead seek an alliance with the BJP. In a matter of a few hours, Kumar resigned as chief minister (on Wednesday night), broke his party’s alliance with the RJD, formed a new alliance with the BJP, and was sworn in again as chief minister, with a new ally, on Thursday morning. Apparently, any past quarrels were forgiven and forgotten.
The Congress Party again failed to make any meaningful contribution in Bihar during the crisis. While the party could have served as a glue to keep the RJD and JD(U) from falling out, it instead hoovered indecisively on the sidelines, due to the detached leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the party’s national Vice-President. According to sources, “the Congress’ senior-most leader in Bihar, Ashok Choudhary, was kept waiting for three days before… Gandhi made the time to see him in Delhi earlier this week.” A similar lethargy prevailed earlier this year in the state of Goa, after state elections, where Congress emerged as the largest party, but nonetheless ceded the formation of a government to the BJP, because the latter party acted faster in forming a coalition.
Instead of taking responsibility, Rahul Gandhi accused Nitish Kumar of betrayal and plotting, over the course of three to four months of making his political switch. While it is probable that Nitish Kumar used the corruption allegations against Tejashwi Yadav as a justification for making an opportunistic switch, which isn’t that crazy since the JD(U) was in alliance with the BJP in the past — after all the BJP is on march across India, and everyone wants to be on the winning side — the result is still indicative of the pathetic state of India’s opposition, and the discipline and organization of the BJP, as well as the political caliber of Narendra Modi and the party’s national president, Amit Shah. The BJP’s position is so strong and the party is so likely to win national re-election in 2019 that few parties want to to challenge it in any meaningful way. The collapse of the grand alliance in Bihar makes it unlikely that similar future attempts at such grand alliances, particularly in the state of Uttar Pradesh, or at the national level in 2019, would work. Given the state of things, it would not be disadvantageous for the BJP to call for snap elections in 2018 instead.
There are now very few states in India where the Congress Party is in power. The most important of these are Punjab and Karnataka. In a handful of other states, particularly West Bengal, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, other parties also hold sway. Yet, the BJP is now more or less dominant over most of India, including the vital Hind-belt. As I predicted earlier this year, India’s political system is now coming to resemble that of Japan’s or Turkey’s, in which a single (right-leaning) party dominates the landscape, winning (free and fair) election after election, partially because of the lack of functional alternatives. Most of those voting for the BJP are not particularly committed Hindutva ideologues, but see the party as their best option, allowing it to gain parliamentary majorities or pluralities in national and local elections. While the BJP has not lived up to the hype with which it was ushered into power with in 2014, in terms of governance, it has far outperformed corruption-laden local outfits and the Congress Party. It has established a narrative of development and national pride that India’s other parties, many of which are tied to caste or region, cannot provide better alternatives to. This message simultaneously resonates with the middle-class and poor, and is generally in line with global trends toward identitarian politics.
As societies modernize, local and sectarian identities give way to larger, more macroscopic identities. The BJP’s success lies, to a large extent, in overcoming the narrow sectarian and caste basis on which many local parties were formed, in order to create a larger Hindu identity; in theory, this identity could encompass 80 percent of India’s population. The BJP has also appealed to Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Shia Muslims, and Muslim women in general, to its potential vote bank really encompasses the vast majority of the Indian population except the far-left and Sunni Muslim traditionalists.
Toward this end, the BJP has promoted various individuals from all of India’s caste and linguistic groups to positions of prominence; take, for example, its elevation of a dalit (untouchable), Ram Nath Kovind, as the new president of India. The pressure the BJP is exerting on smaller parties is felt event by its nationalist allies. For example, the Shiv Sena, a Hindu- and Marathi-nationalist party in the state of Maharashtra, while technically a junior ally of the BJP, which runs that state, is increasingly lashing out against it, because it feels as though it is being squeezed out of its political space. Leaders of the erstwhile Maratha Empire, such as Chhatrapati Shivaji, scourge of the Mughals, have now been cast as national Hindu heroes.
Other states, like the Congress-led Karnataka, due for elections in 2018, have stepped up regional nationalism in an attempt to keep the BJP out. Karnataka is a particularly extreme case, because some of the actions of its chief minister, Siddaramaiah, have met with disapproval from the Congress Party at the national level. A panel set up by his government is looking into whether Karnataka can have its own flag. In the context of Indian politics, this has generally been a big no-no: the only state with its own flag is Jammu and Kashmir, which has special status in the Indian constitution. Other states have judiciously avoided establishing their own flags, under the idea that only the Indian flag should be flown on institutions throughout the country. In addition to this issue, an agitation recently disrupted the state capital, Bengaluru, over the alleged “imposition” of Hindi on the city’s metro: signage was in Kannada, English, and Hindi, but strangely enough, the use of Hindi was regarded as an “imposition.” The BJP is often seen as promoting a pan-Indian identity that boils down to “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan.” Yet, the extremity and timing of these events in Karnataka point to political maneuvering.
Across India, the BJP’s march to dominance continues. It seems that for most other actors, hitching their destinies to lackluster alliances to fight the BJP is an increasingly futile strategy. As the adage goes, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”