"It was a historic blunder". This statement is one of the landmarks of the Indian politics. But it is possible that the children of economic reforms not know the historical context or the speaker of these words. This statement was made to one of the finest journalists of our generation who unfortunately has defected to the ruling regime of today: MJ Akbar, Minister of State for External Affairs. The man who said it was one of the legends of our time, the great communist leader Jyoti Basu, who was respected even by hard-core political opponents. Jyoti Basu was offered the Prime Ministership in 1996
by United Front leaders; he was keen to take up the job but was denied the opportunity by his own party, the CPM, not once but twice. Jyoti Basu, being a loyal soldier of the party, accepted the party's verdict with dignity, but eventually, he could not hide his emotional which he betrayed in an interview to Akbar.
Basu had successfully run the Left coalition for more than two decades and if he were at the helm of affairs, who knows how differently history may have been written. It was because of the shortsightedness of H. D. Deve Gowda that the country faced elections in 1997 and the BJP under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee assumed power. Had the United Front coalition been stable, run a little longer, maybe the BJP would not have been such a colossus of power today. History is again at a very critical juncture. And once again, the same mistakes seem to be repeating, albeit in a different form. Today, the question hanging in the air is if the Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar will commit the same mistake.
It looks like he is willing to side with the BJP. For the Presidential election, he has junked his own country cousin, Meira Kumar, and is openly supporting the BJP candidate, Ram Nath Kovind. It is said to be a one-time transgression. But he is missing today from the meeting called in Delhi for discussions on the selection of the Vice-Presidential candidate. Nobody really knows what Nitish Kumar is up to. When opposition leaders met to choose the candidate for President, he preferred to lunch with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If he repeats the same script, then it will be bigger setback than the earlier one for the anti-BJP front of 17 parties.
Modi at this moment seems unstoppable. The principal opposition party, the Congress, has realised that it is in no position to challenge and break the electoral hegemony of the BJP-RSS combine. This realisation has alerted the Congress enough to organise the regional parties under one umbrella. Nitish Kumar was the lynchpin of this endeavour before Ram Nath Kovind appeared on the political firmament. Kovind's appearance has changed all equations. Nitish has forgotten that he was the initiator of opposition unity in April. It was assumed that he might inspire other regional leaders, especially in Uttar Pradesh, to relive the successful experiment of Bihar's mahagathbandhan
. But his defection has broken many hearts. Nitish and Lalu were bitter rivals in Bihar politics. But their coming together inflicted a humiliating defeat to Modi in the Bihar election in 2015. The Nitish and Lalu alliance was considered to be the "new" assertion of backward politics vis-à-vis the rise of Hindutva forces.
In north India, Bihar has been the only state where the BJP-RSS have failed to ever form a majority government. In neighbouring states like UP, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, it has formed the government many times. In Himachal Pradesh, it broke the Congress dominance long ago and now it has a government in Haryana too. But Bihar has been elusive, a mirage. Bihar is the state which stopped Advani's historic Rath Yatra
in 1990 and that made Lalu Yadav a hero of anti-BJP elements. Lalu went on to rule Bihar for 15 years. And then the baton was passed to another backward caste leader, Nitish Kumar, who till then had lived under the shadow of Lalu Yadav. The BJP played second fiddle for seven years as a junior partner to Nitish's JD(U) in their coalition government before they split up. During the 2015 assembly election, Modi tried his level best but could not shake the forces of Mandal politics. Bihar represents Modi's unfinished agenda. And therefore, Modi would like to "successfully" lure Nitish for the fulfilment of his dream.
The country is right now passing through a rough phase - the social fabric is in tatters, secularism has earned a bad name, communal intolerance is on the ascendance, the RSS/BJP is setting a different agenda, minorities are being targeted, eating habits are the cause of people being killed, mob lynching is the new normal, the voice of dissent is being crushed, disagreement is considered to be mutinous, Kashmir is boiling, China is breathing down our neck, the economy seems suicidal and the press has shamelessly surrendered to the ruling party. The country needs a strong opposition to make the central government accountable.
It was Nitish Kumar who had initiated the process for opposition unity in April. His initiative was a glimmer of hope in times of despair. Nitish has the stature and experience to push this forward. He could play the same role played by Devi Lal, the Chief Minister of Haryana, in the mid-'80s. It is true that V P Singh was the face of the revolt against the Congress, but it was Devi Lal who brought all opposition leaders to one platform and finally succeeded in bringing down the Congress government in 1989. Despite Nitish's long association with the BJP, his secular credentials have never been questioned. Even when he was running the government with the help of the BJP, he did not let the BJP-RSS set the agenda. Later, he ditched the BJP when Modi was anointed its prime ministerial candidate. It is in this context that his recent actions are baffling.
His cozying up to Modi is beyond comprehension. His government is stable. There is no threat to his government though central agencies have recently targeted Lalu and his entire family. The serious corruption charges levelled against his family have been called "political vendetta" by Lalu. It is true that Nitish is image-conscious. But let's not forget that his party is also not clean and he has sought the support of many leaders with a not-so-clean past like Suraj Bhan Singh, a dreaded gangster of Bihar. It can be believed that Sushil Kumar Modi of the BJP is a less volatile ally than Lalu. While that may make a return to a BJP alliance attractive, we should also not forget that the BJP today is led not by Advani, but by Modi who refuses to consider any one at par with himself. Equality is an alien concept in Modi's dictionary. It will be difficult for Nitish to accept a subordinate role. On the other hand, if he continues with the opposition, he will be treated as one of the stalwarts of Indian politics, a luxury that will allude him in Modi's company.
Nitish has to understand that he is essential to building a counter-narrative and galvanising anti-BJP forces. With the BJP, he will remain a senior Chief Minister, but staying with the opposition can allow him to don a hero's role. And if he is absent from the anti-BJP front, it will certainly weaken the resolve of the opposition which will result in the weakening of Indian democracy. This will be the historic blunder.
Let me remind him what his socialist mentor Ram Manohar Lohia said in August 1966 about the BJP's earlier avatar
Jan Sangh - "... there is no consistency in their character, speech, action and policy but they have successfully held together and have learnt the art of alternately using this group or that in order to increase their own strength...." Modi is a master of that art. Nitish should know this better than anyone else.(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.