‘The general idea is to unite all the anti-Modi parties into an alliance, to dent the PM’s image as a vote-winner, and then stymie him in Parliament -- particularly in the Rajya Sabha -- in order to ruin his credentials as a reformer,’ says TVR Shenoy.
'Narendra Modi must be stopped.'
Those five words sum up the entire philosophy (such as it is) of the Opposition parties.
Can Narendra Modi be stopped? They are not quite sure.
What happens if Narendra Modi is stopped? They have not thought it through.
Why should Narendra Modi be stopped? They dare not explain.
The truth is that many people are scared. There is a fear of political irrelevance. And there is a more personal fear, that Narendra Modi may be taking his campaign promise of bringing back black money just a little too seriously -- and this worries not just politicians but also a section of bureaucrats and businessmen.
The only way, many feel, to halt Modi in his tracks is to bury him under an avalanche of political setbacks, and the finest way to do so is to string together a series of electoral defeats. The problem is that no single party or leader can challenge a BJP led by Narendra Modi. This means that the Opposition must 'hang together, or hang separately'.
The calculation is that the best place to start that process is Bihar. Why that state in particular? There are several reasons.
First, in the general election, the Rashtriya Janata Dal won 20.1% of the votes polled in Bihar, the Janata Dal- United got 15.8%, and the Congress ended up with 8.4% of the votes. That adds up to 44.3% of the votes.
The BJP won 29.4% of the votes, Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Jan Shakti Party won 6.4%, and the Lok Samta Party won 3% -- which adds up to 38.8%, obviously less than that of the new Rashtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal-United-Congress alliance.
Second, the alliance partners believe that in Nitish Kumar they have someone who has a story to rival that of Narendra Modi, a combination of personal integrity coupled with a rival model of development. Yes, that story did not resonate with voters in the general election, but by-elections may be a different tale. (Or so they hope, because, realistically, what other choice do they have?)
Third, the new triple alliance thinks that the 'junior' Modi -- Sushil Kumar Modi, once finance minister in Nitish Kumar's cabinet -- will be easier to tackle than the 'senior' Modi (the prime minister).
I cannot resist telling this tale. Sushil Kumar Modi has, as it happens, worked closely with Lalu Prasad Yadav as well as Nitish Kumar; if he was the deputy chief minister in the latter's cabinet he was general secretary of the Patna University Students Union in the 1970s when Lalu Prasad Yadav was the president. (All three were drawn into politics by the JP Movement.)
A reporter once mischievously asked him which of the two was the better partner. The BJP leader shot back that his favourite partner was Jessie George, his wife. Yes, an RSS man from Bihar is married to a Christian from Kerala!
Returning to Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar, how do you overturn two decades of abuse?
Nitish Kumar left the Janata Dal twenty years ago to found the Samata Party. He did so in protest against the manner in which Lalu Prasad Yadav, then chief minister of Bihar, was abusing his power. Lalu Prasad Yadav's reign was noxious to Nitish Kumar for its corruption, for its nepotism, for its casteism, and for its sheer maladministration.
In 1996, just a little over three years after that disputed structure in Ayodhya was reduced to rubble, the Samata Party forged an electoral alliance with the BJP, which was then friendless except for the Shiv Sena. There was no talk at that point about 'communal forces'.
In five general elections -- 1996, 1998, 1999, 2004, and 2009 -- and four Bihar Vidhan Sabha polls -- 2000, 2005 (twice), and 2010 -- Nitish Kumar's alliance with the BJP was the cornerstone of his politics. He fulfilled 'coalition dharma' to the extent of campaigning for the BJP in Gujarat after the 2002 riots, and sharing a stage with Narendra Modi.
Has anything changed since Nitish Kumar walked out on Lalu Prasad Yadav twenty years ago? Is the Rashtriya Janata Dal boss now less tainted? (No, his successful prosecution cost Yadav his seat in the last Lok Sabha, and still bars him from contesting elections.) Has he become one whit less dynastic? (No, he gave tickets to his wife and daughter; Rabri Devi lost in Saran, Misa Bharti was beaten in Pataliputra.)
Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, and the Congress want Bihar's voters -- and India at large -- to erase everything that Nitish Kumar said between 1996 and 2013 (when he broke with the BJP over the issue of Narendra Modi becoming the prime ministerial candidate). Or if they can't erase it from memory, then they want the voter to overlook it -- in the name of 'battling communal forces'.
The truth is that Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav have only two realistic options: To embrace political irrelevance, or to embrace each other.
Consider what happened when the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal-United and the Congress fought the BJP (and its allies) separately in the general election.
There are 40 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar. The BJP won 22; Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Jan Shakti Party won six; the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party won three more seats. This adds up to 31 seats for the BJP and its allies.
Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal-United won just two seats. Lalu Prasad Yadav -- himself barred from contesting -- managed to get four MPs elected on the Rashtriya Janata Dal ticket. The Congress won two seats. With the lessons of the general election staring them in the face the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal-United and the Congress hastily came to terms for 10 by-elections to the Bihar Vidhan Sabha.
The result is that there is a grand alliance facing the BJP-led alliance in Narkatiaganj, Rajnagar, Jale, Chhapra, Hajipur, Mohiuddinnagar, Parbatta, Bhagalpur, Banka, and Mohania. Lalu Prasad Yadav is now so much in love with this strategy that he has advised his old friends in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, to sink their own differences.
But while arithmetic might rule once the votes are counted you need a certain amount of chemistry to attract those votes in the first instance.
Will everyone who voted for Nitish Kumar in the name of clean government and development transfer their votes to Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose regime was a byname for maladministration?
Will the Bihar model, assuming it is successful, work elsewhere? Will Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati indeed join hands in Uttar Pradesh? Will the CPI-M join a grand 'secular' coalition with the Congress in Kerala, or with the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal?
Speaking of secularism, please note that Muslims are being taken for granted once again. Neither Nitish Kumar nor Lalu Prasad Yadav has seen fit to give any Muslim a ticket in any of the 10 by-elections.
These polls are precursors to full-blown assembly elections, in Jammu & Kashmir, in Jharkhand, in Haryana, and in Maharashtra. Do remember that these Vidhan Sabha polls will have a direct bearing in the composition of the Rajya Sabha, whose MPs are elected by the state legislators.
While poorly articulated, intellectually barren, and politically dishonest, the general idea is to unite all the anti-Modi parties into an alliance, to dent the prime minister's image as a vote-winner, and then stymie him in Parliament -- particularly in the Rajya Sabha -- in order to ruin his credentials as a reformer. The sole glue holding the coalition together will be the maxim 'Narendra Modi must be stopped'.
Come Monday, August 25, we shall know if Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav succeeded in their cynical gamble.
For more columns by Mr T V R Shenoy, please click here!