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How does Nitish escape Lalu's boa constrictor-like embrace?

By T V R Shenoy
October 14, 2015 21:44 IST
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'Even if the anti-Modi 'Mahagatbandhan' gets a majority there is simply no way that Nitish Kumar can ensure even a stable government, leave alone a good -- clean, development-oriented -- government,' argues T V R Shenoy.

Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar

'Lord,' Voltaire reputedly exclaimed, 'save me from my friends; I can take care of my enemies.'

At opposite ends of India two chief ministers, Nitish Kumar and Oommen Chandy, should be pondering over the 18th century philosopher's wisdom. Both face electoral tests where their allies are proving more nettlesome than the Opposition.

The Vidhan Sabha polls in Bihar are drawing national interest, and there will be national repercussions no matter who wins or loses. The local body elections in Kerala are of interest to nobody outside the state, which is a reflection of how much the state has drifted out of the mainstream.

If this were an American-style gubernatorial contest -- where voters directly choose between the declared candidates for the chief executive's post -- Nitish Kumar would win Bihar by a landslide. This is a tribute to his years as chief minister between 2005 and 2013, when he started cleaning up the mess left by the Lalu Prasad Yadav years.

India follows the British model rather than the American, which means that Nitish Kumar must ensure not just his own victory but that of a sufficient number of his candidates to ensure another stable term in office. And this is impossible.

There are 243 Vidhan Sabha constituents in Bihar, so the barest of majorities is 122. Yet his allies have browbeaten or bamboozled Nitish Kumar by giving his party, the Janata Dal-United, exactly 100 seats.

Even if the anti-Modi 'Mahagatbandhan' ('grand alliance') gets a majority there is simply no way that Nitish Kumar can ensure even a stable government, leave alone a good -- clean, development-oriented -- government.

The most generous estimate is that the Janata Dal-United will have a strike rate of 80%. That would still leave Nitish Kumar 42 MLAs short of the thinnest of majorities, meaning that he would be fatally dependent on his allies.

And those allies, please remember, are the selfsame lot who sold him short when it came to seat distribution. Exactly how hard could Nitish Kumar crack the whip on ministers from other parties?

Nitish Kumar's tragedy is that he overthrew the convictions of a lifetime in politics after a single defeat at Narendra Modi's hands. He entered politics as a disciple of Jayaprakash Narayan, when the legendary leader began his struggle against the corruption of the Congress in the early 1970s, and continued in that vein up to and including the Bofors period when the mantle of anti-corruption crusader was picked up by V P Singh.

In the early 1990s Nitish Kumar was the first to speak out against the corruption of the Lalu Prasad Yadav ministry in Bihar.

Has the Congress lost the stench of corruption since the Indira Gandhi years?

Has Lalu Prasad Yadav been able to shake off the reputation for creating a 'Jungle Raj' in Bihar?

Yet Nitish Kumar in his panic, or depression, or rage at being bested by Narendra Modi in his own den overlooked his four decades of crusading against the Congress and 20 years of battling Lalu Prasad Yadav to embrace precisely those two.

There is a great deal of respect for Nitish Kumar as an individual in Bihar. But there is an equal amount of loathing and fear inspired by memories of what life was like when Lalu Prasad Yadav and his family ruled supreme in Patna.

Nitish Kumar might be able to shake off the bogey of Narendra Modi, but how does he escape the boa constrictor-like embrace of Lalu Prasad Yadav?

Should Nitish Kumar ever solve the conundrum of accepting Lalu Prasad Yadav as an ally while rejecting everything that the man represents in the public eye, he should reveal the secret to Oommen Chandy.

The Congress chief minister of Kerala has precisely the same problem, increasingly pushy friends who repel as many voters as they bring to the booth. The chief allies of the Congress in the state are the Muslim League (whose voters define themselves) and the Kerala Congress (which despite its name is little more than the voice of a large section of Christians).

The dependance -- one might call it the over-dependance -- of the Congress on the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress is increasingly pushing away Hindu voters. The (somewhat idiotic) result is that the voice of the Hindus of Kerala is the CPI-M, whose leadership consists of atheists.

But where else do Hindus turn?

The obvious answer might seem to be 'the BJP', but that party is virtually defunct. The BJP has been in existence for 35 years, and in all that time it has failed to have a single candidate elected to the Kerala assembly, leave alone to Parliament.

After the veteran BJP leader O Rajagopal lost the Aruvikkara by-election in June 2015, Shashi Tharoor summed up the situation with cruel brevity, 'Mr Rajagopal has fought nine consecutive elections -- and he has lost nine consecutive elections.'

The current local body polls could be the last opportunity that the BJP's state unit has to prove itself. Should it perform poorly -- and this, to my mind, is virtually guaranteed -- the current high command in Delhi will not be as forgiving as its predecessors.

Amit Shah does not want gallant losers, he wants winners. And if that means looking outside the official party apparatus, then so be it.

The Ezhavas are the largest Hindu community in Kerala. On the rare occasions that Narendra Modi visited Kerala in the Lok Sabha campaign he made it a point to reach out to them, and they have organisations whose roots go back well over a century. Those institutions are not really political in nature, but as the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress become more and more pushy, they could become the nucleus of a new front in Kerala.

But how shall the CPI-M react to the sudden loss of a large chunk of its Hindu base? Straws in the wind suggest that the Marxist leadership is already worrying...

As with Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Oommen Chandy is probably the individual best suited to be chief minister in that he seems to be the only one aware of the state's degraded infrastructure. But both men are being dragged down by myopic allies, the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress in Kerala.

Counting for the Kerala local body polls is on November 7. Counting for the Bihar Vidhan Sabha elections is on November . Jostling with one's allies to prepare for the next elections will start on November 9...

Lord save Nitish Kumar and Oommen Chandy from their 'friends'.

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T V R Shenoy