At a little short of 11 this morning, having watched the washout on television, chief minister Nitish Kumar got up to take a long-delayed shower.
He left behind, in his office suite at 1 Aney Marg, a quite stunned set of aides that included chief factotum R.C.P. Singh. What they had stared at all morning was a repudiation so resounding it had left them speechless.
The ground had shifted underfoot and given itself to the man Nitish had vehemently cast away last summer: Narendra Modi, the new power baron of Bihar.
It’s moot yet how long Nitish will be able to retain de jure rights to rule; today’s verdict has announced in Bihar a new de facto protagonist who isn’t even a Bihari. This is no ordinary verdict, mind you, and its central message is probably this: Narendra Modi has reduced Nitish and Lalu to single-digit pygmies.
Modi has trampled conventional socio-political equations and voting patterns. He has, in the shortest time, propelled the BJP into the frontrunner’s seat.
And this he has achieved by establishing a stunning connect with the populace. Once spurned by Nitish Kumar, he blistered the Bihar stage with a call to “avenge insult”. It’s a call Bihar embraced with vigour. It has punished Nitish Kumar; it has wreaked collateral havoc on Modi’s other challenger, Lalu Prasad. The Bihar barn is in the throes of storming by Modi’s troopers; it’s unlikely they will now ease their run until they have attempted provincial conquest.
Assembly elections in Bihar are still a year and a half off. But that’s only on paper, a timeline that can get quickly overrun by the pace of change. The Nitish government is on a thin ledge, hanging on to power courtesy a handful of independents and Congressmen. Modi’s triumphal march on Delhi may yet restrain the Lalu-Congress alliance from pulling the Assembly rug from under Nitish. But the Assembly arithmetic itself may have turned into a thing of paper. The BJP has robust numbers on the floor; Nitish has just lost critical layers of popular and political credibility. He is effectively lame duck; he may not be able much longer to effectively deliver governance, the key credo of his eight-year stint in power.
Nitish also leads a dispirited treasury riven by rancour and murmurs of dissent. These past years, a growing complaint from JD(U) ranks — and from some of Nitish’s senior party and cabinet colleagues — has been that Nitish has locked himself in an ivory tower, impervious to suggestion, averse to criticism, however constructive, divorced from the sense on the ground.
At a JD(U) convention in Rajgir last October, caution over Nitish’s style of functioning was sounded by two senior leaders — then JDU spokesperson Shivanand Tiwari, and agriculture minister Narendra Singh. Tiwari saw himself thrown out of the party in due course, probably for sounding the warning that the Nitish dispensation was not taking Modi’s inroads into Bihar seriously enough; Narendra Singh, not a part of Nitish’s close circle, merely remained ignored. In recent weeks, Narendra Singh’s name has done the rounds of Patna’s hyperactive power circles as a potential deserter. Anti-defection laws may not make rebellion an easy thing to effect, but nobody doubts Singh is a disgruntled dissenter whose posture will turn bolder.
“This government is surrounded by crises,” a senior JD(U) leader confided to The Telegraph this afternoon. “There is now the proven groundswell for the BJP to confront, there is internal disaffection to address and neutralise. Time is running out, events are outstripping us. The first task will be to recover from this huge reversal, I hope the leadership heeds the message of this mandate.”
The critical issue both Nitish and Lalu will be forced to ponder in the days to come is whether they shot themselves in the foot over-pitching the “secular” chant and investing disproportionate rhetoric, resources and energy in pursuit of the Muslim vote. Broadbrush reading of the Bihar outcome would suggest that the minority bias of Nitish and Lalu ended up hurting them twice over. They split the 17-odd per cent Muslim vote. They also fuelled a counter-consolidation of voter sentiment in favour of the BJP.
The one man who perhaps came to symbolise this counter-productive strategy is Akhtarul Iman, the JDU nominee from the Muslim-majority Kishanganj seat, who withdrew mid-campaign in favour of the Congress’s Asrarul Haque. Iman justified his decision in the name of avoiding a split in what he called the “secular” (read Muslim) vote. What Iman’s move could have achieved, though, is given muscle to the BJP’s effort to render the minority vote verily irrelevant by effecting a cross-caste conglomeration in its favour. Barring the volatile interventions of Giriraj Singh, now Lok Sabha member from Nawada, the BJP was careful not to foreground its sectarian appeal, but the subtext of its campaign, amplified from time to time by the likes of Giriraj, was lost on nobody: the more Nitish and Lalu attempt to bring the minority vote to intervene on the electoral board, the greater the effort should be to push it into irrelevance.
Encoded subtly in the Bihar verdict may lie clues to the most polarised election the state has seen. The implications of this could offer cause for concern well beyond this election, especially if it turns out that the minorities find themselves cleaved off the power stakes altogether; calibrating minority sentiment and imparting a sense of inclusiveness will be as much a social challenge as a political one. And yet, shrill espousal of “secular” politics and pursuit of the Muslim voter is a strategy both Nitish and Lalu may find it necessary to revisit in the weeks to come. The BJP is already in possession of a strong pole of the polity, it is their adversaries who will now be impelled to evolve ways to survive and remain relevant. That’s how deeply Narendra Modi has intervened in Bihar.