Earlier this week, when Nitish Kumar took oath as Bihar’s chief minister for the fourth straight term, a visible sense of uneasiness marked the swearing-in ceremony. The 69-year-old leader, sharing the stage with two deputy CM nominees of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), appeared gloomy. The exuberance was clearly missing.
The atmospherics mirrored how the power balance in the state has shifted. The latest election results have seen the BJP swap places with Nitish’s JD(U). In the alliance, the BJP now has 74 seats, compared to 53 last time, while the tally for JD(U) sharply slipped from 71 to 43.
Nitish has returned as CM, but the BJP now has a bigger presence with two deputy chief ministers, a larger share in the council of ministers and the speaker of the state Assembly. The party has also dropped Sushil Modi, the previous deputy CM who is known for his proximity to Nitish. Worse, the BJP continues to go easy on Chirag Paswan and his Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), which was responsible for the defeat of JD(U) candidates in more than two dozen constituencies.
In short, Nitish gets to lead but the BJP will be running the government. Therein lies the most important lesson of the Bihar mandate for regional parties.
National politics outsmarts regionalism
The JD(U)’s current fate, however, is not an exception to the BJP’s evolving national footprint.
Starting with the Lok Sabha elections in 1989, when it supported the VP Singh-led National Front and entered into a tacit seat-sharing deal with the Janata Dal, the BJP has sought to piggyback on regional parties. And eventually in the process, succeeded in marginalising them.
Gujarat was the first state where the BJP came to power in 1990 as a junior partner in an alliance with Chimanbhai Patel-led Janata Dal. By 1995, thanks to LK Advani’s rath yatra, the party consolidated its support among caste Hindus and amongst the electorally-dominant Patels to win the state on its own. The Janata Dal disintegrated within barely a year after that.
A similar script played out in neighbouring Maharashtra, where the BJP first joined hands with the Shiv Sena to contest state elections in 1990. Five years later, the alliance — with BJP as a junior partner — succeeded in taking power in the country’s richest and second most populous state. Successive elections saw the party grow its presence steadily to eventually overtake the Sena in 2014, when Devendra Fadnavis became the first BJP CM of Maharashtra.
In the past two decades, the Maharashtra-Gujarat model has been successfully emulated in states such as Goa, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Assam and Haryana. Even in states like Odisha, West Bengal, Andhra and Tamil Nadu, the BJP has grown primarily on gains it made through alliances with regional players. In part, the BJP’s success has drawn greatly from the deep-seated anti-Congressism among the regional parties.
In Bihar, by picking a politician each from the backward castes (OBC) and the extremely backward castes (EBCs) – Tarkishore Prasad and Renu Devi, respectively – as deputy chief ministers, there is a strong indication that a similar plot is about to unfold. It is highly plausible that the BJP (perhaps after the UP elections) will try to form its own government in Bihar either by poaching opposition MLAs or even forcing a midterm election.
Can a big fish be eaten?
While the BJP’s steady elimination of regional parties seems to be on course, recent frictions and fractures are nonetheless showing up. In part, this follows from the nature of the script itself. To choke regional politics, the BJP strategy has relied on the politics of ‘double-othering’: working to simultaneously marginalise Muslims and the dominant caste community within the state.
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In Haryana, they ensured that a non-Jat became chief minister. A similar downsizing of the Marathas was attempted in Maharashtra. In Jharkhand, the BJP stuck to trying to foist a non-Adivasi chief minister. Goa is also witness to sustained effort to keep a non-Christian chief minister, which is the reverse of what the Congress had done in that state. Many also argue that the Yogi Adithyanath government in Uttar Pradesh is nothing but the accommodation of a regional force within the temporary folds of a national party, by deftly manoeuvring to politically disperse the Jats, the Yadavs, the non-Yadav OBCs, the Dalits and the Muslims into sub groupings within the state.
While the strategy for ‘double othering’ has undoubtedly helped the BJP reap many an electoral success, it comes with a price. Many of the regionally dominant castes are now boiling over, with the Marathas, the Jats and even the Patels are now chaffing at the Centre. The BJP’s firm grip, moreover, depends on a very expensive electoral machine and intense internal competition is also emerging.
On the other hand, the regional parties can potentially begin to regroup too. For one, they will need to develop a cogent and consistent national narrative even as they make a strong case for sustaining India’s federal design or accommodation and inclusion.
Although the share of the regional parties in the electoral pie has steadily grown since the late 1980s – accounting for about a half of total votes polled in every national election held since 1996, it hasn’t translated into either strengthening federalism or a greater say for state parties in national affairs.
While the growth of the BJP, a party that believes in a strong Centre, is partly responsible for the weakening of the federal fabric, the regional parties too have their share of the blame. They have been reluctant to contribute to the nation’s political narrative or make their presence felt in the political discourse at a national level. Increasingly, they have swung in favour of the party in power at the Centre when it came to making legislation in Parliament or designing policies of national ramifications. This must change if regional parties are to get serious about their politics.
Lastly, it is highly unlikely that regional politics will go away even as some regional parties get subsumed. Rather, a national party such as the BJP might begin to internally face stronger regional pressures and aspirations. In the coming months, the electoral outcomes in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam might tell us more clearly whether small fish can indeed eat a big fish.
(The author is an independent journalist and the Founder-Director of Odisha Dialogues)
(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)