The rise of the East
The trio of Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee is likely to have a decisive say in government formation after the next general elections.
In 1990, the then Bihar Chief Minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav showed rare gumption and pluck to stall the seemingly unstoppable march of L K Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra. Advani was detained in Samastipur and prevented from proceeding to Ayodhya. Yadav became the hero of the secular forces in the country who had watched Advani’s march with increasing alarm.
Almost 23 years later, another Bihar Chief Minister has taken the wind out of the sail of another BJP leader. Last month, Nitish Kumar displayed decisiveness and daring, rare in Indian politics today, and broke away from an alliance of 17 years with the BJP in Bihar on the question of Narendra Modi’s elevation as the de facto prime ministerial candidate of his party in the upcoming general elections. By doing so, Kumar demonstrated that Modi was indeed divisive, as many of his detractors choose to describe him.
Who dares, wins. With this, Kumar rose in stature in the national polity. The Congress hailed his move and extended symbolic support to him in the subsequent trust vote. Kumar romped home and much of the discomfiture caused by his party’s surprise defeat in the Maharaganj Lok Sabha by poll, earlier in the month, became a thing of the past.
Nitish Kumar is now seen as potentially playing a very significant role in national politics – both before and after the next general elections. Many analysts are willing to wager that he will be the dominant force in the parliamentary elections in Bihar, that elects 40 Lok Sabha MPs.
He has performed remarkably well as Chief Minister of Bihar since 2005, putting the state back on the development track after the derailment suffered during the previous 15 years of rule by Laloo Prasad Yadav. Bihar is no longer considered a basket case. In fact, under him, Bihar has had one of the highest growth rates among all states in India. And yet, he is second to none in going for that which fetches votes in Bihar’s complex web of caste, community and religious affiliations. It is his intimate knowledge of ground-level political realities that prompted him to take the precipitate step of breaking with the BJP on the issue of Narendra Modi. Muslims will now see him as a friend, if not also a saviour – not just in Bihar but outside the state as well.
Having the credentials of pro-minority, pro-backward and pro-development, with a proven track record of governance (the Bodhgaya blasts and the more recent mid-day meal tragedy notwithstanding), Nitish Kumar would be well placed to stake a claim to a leadership role in any configuration at the Centre. It is too early to make a reasonable guess as to how the political line-up will be in the run up to the elections. The BJP has taken a huge risk by naming Modi as its man of the moment. The reaction to his elevation has been almost immediate and has come from both within and outside his party. The ramifications of this move have yet to fully play out.
Like Nitish Kumar, another stalwart of the East, Naveen Patnaik, the Chief Minister of Orissa, has made it known that he has no love lost for Modi. He pre-dates Nitish Kumar in breaking with the BJP—If there was any hope for the BJP of getting the Biju Janata Dal back into the NDA, it has now been dashed by the elevation of Modi. Patnaik has an impressive record of remaining a darling of the electorate. He is expected to retain his winning streak in both the Parliamentary and Assembly elections next year, though he does face a threat from Pyarimohan Mohapatra. Once his right-hand man and principal advisor, Mohapatra fell from grace last year after Patnaik got wind of a suspected coup attempt. Mohapatra has set up his own political outfit, Odisha Jan Morcha, and has made it known that his goal is to oust Patnaik. So far, he has not succeeded in winning over a single BJD MLA.
That leaves Mamata Banerjee from among the major Opposition leaders from the East. It is difficult to see her aligning with a BJP that gives primacy to Modi, given that Muslims constitute around 30 percent of the population of Bengal. Not surprisingly, Banerjee has called for the formation of a non-BJP, non-Congress Federal Front and has already reached out to Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik, among others. Banerjee’s performance as Chief Minister has been lacklustre. There is growing disenchantment with her among the urban middle-class. But there is no evidence yet to support the view that she has lost her appeal among the rural masses. True, the Congress is no longer with her, but the Left Front is yet to recover from the shock of defeat in the epochal Assembly election of 2011. The ongoing Panchayat polls in the state are critical and will tell us more about Banerjee’s current standing with the electorate.
The run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, whether they are held on schedule in 2014, or sooner, as some suspect Sonia Gandhi might plump for, taking a cue from her mother-in-law (who went for a snap poll in 1970 and reaped huge dividends), will see a churn with leading political players seeking to cobble together or undo alliances. Nitish Kumar’s precipitate move and the very recent alliance between Congress and Jharkhand Mukthi Morcha are of a piece with that. Both developments help the Congress. It has the onerous task of rebuilding the UPA, which during the term of this Lok Sabha saw the exits of the Trinamool and the DMK, two powerful forces.
The NDA is in no better shape. If anything, it is worse off than the Congress and the UPA. The presidential election last year exposed many chinks in its armour. Put it to the personal appeal of Pranab Mukherjee, but the fact remains that major regional players like JD-U (portentously, it would seem now) and Shiv Sena, broke ranks and voted in favour of the UPA candidate. And Mukherjee romped home even in Karnataka, where the ruling party was the BJP. Thus did Sonia Gandhi turn a seemingly lost cause into a successful campaign.
If the troika of Nitish Kumar, Patnaik and Banerjee performs reasonably well at the hustings, as it is expected to do, and perchance comes together, it could have a decisive say in government formation after the next general elections. That would be the first time in 67 years when Eastern India would decide who forms the government in Delhi. Who rules the cow-belt rules India: that myth will be finally busted.
Vivek Sengupta is Founder and Chief Executive of the consulting firm Moving Finger Communications.