Friday, July 28, 2017

Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the lessons of Bihar

There is an irony in trying to interpret Nitish’s break with Lalu as some kind of watershed moment in Indian politics. Does it represent the death of secularism? Does it represent the death of regional parties? But the blunt truth is that this moment is not a watershed, but merely a reminder of the eternal realities of Indian democracy: Indian democracy is politics all the way down. Any attempts to frame its realities in terms of encrusted master narratives is largely wishful thinking. None of the protagonists in this drama can bear the load of any deeper meaning.

Nitish Kumar has always been a politician’s politician. This has manifested itself in many ways. His first instinct has always been survival. He now has an enviable track record of managing to remain an indispensable figure in Bihar politics. His second instinct, like many politicians in India, is to ensure a relatively weak internal party organisation that ensures he is never challenged from the inside. He has combined that with a personal outreach, recognition, popular touch and a relative absence of personal thuggery to remain an important figure. In Bihar, electoral secularism was a wise thing to hold onto, which he did. But he never had any qualms about the NDA. He has also managed to paradoxically combine both dependence on allies with his own indispensability. 

Third, he has always played within its limitations. There has been immense clamour for him to take a national role. But he has seldom overreached. He has been ambitious, but without any illusions about his ability to play a larger national role. And his instinct was probably right: Without an organisation of your own, without a pan Indian ideology, without years of national outreach, any national ambition is tantamount to making yourself vulnerable rather than strong.
Indian politics is littered with state leaders who thought they could easily become national figures. The expectation that he would position himself as an opposition figure was, therefore, extremely odd. As a good politician, he believed in social engineering. But unlike many politicians of the Mandal era who remain trapped in their social base, Nitish has continually improvised. He engineered the “coalition of extremes” in his last incarnation with the BJP. The main achievement of his stint as chief minister after 2005 was to give Bihar a government with a broad social base that allowed a modicum of governance to be restored. But the keen eye for a fluidity of social bases will always make ideological niceties harder to hold onto… read more: