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Nitish’s Dilemma

Power or Politics?

Suhas Palshikar ( is a political commentator and former teacher of politics and public administration at the Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.


It is not easy to decipher what message emanates from Nitish Kumar’s decision to support the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) presidential nominee and generally rock the non-BJP boat. His victory in the Bihar assembly elections had not only put the BJP in a spot but also generated an impression that he might lead an all-India anti-BJP platform.

Three years after the resurgence of the BJP, it is still unclear which political forces would fill the oppositional space. In view of the dilapidated state of the Congress party and its sheer unwillingness to reclaim its place, many observers tend to invest analytical energy and hope in state parties. This expectation does have merit because in contests against Congress, the success rate of the BJP was much better in comparison to its success vis-à-vis state parties. Beyond this factual electoral dimension, there is also a larger and somewhat theoretical point. Since the 1990s, many have believed that the phase of “all-India”’ parties is nearly over and following that logic, many would today believe that the main opposition to the BJP would emerge from the state parties. Accordingly, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal has been vociferous in its opposition to the BJP and the Janata Dal (United) or/JD(U)-led coalition in Bihar kept the BJP away from power in that state. The fact that many key states are currently governed by state parties and that there is a presence of large contingents from parties like the TMC or the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in the Lok Sabha, make state parties natural claimants to the oppositional space.

This expectation received a jolt in the course of nominations for the presidential election. Parties which are not partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) extended their support to the presidential nominee of the BJP. Then, the opposition boycott of the midnight session of Parliament to usher in the goods and services tax (GST) also became a tame affair with the JD(U) and many other state parties attending the celebratory session. These developments have not only fractured the fragile unity of the opposition, they have also drawn attention to the limitations of state parties in joining an ideological platform that is firmly opposed to the BJP.

Grand Narratives

This is surely not a new development. During the 1990s, when the political spectrum was sought to be divided between communal and non-communal (secular) forces, those efforts were effectively punctured by a large number of state parties who joined hands with the BJP. In fact, one may not find many state parties that have never, even indirectly, aligned with the BJP during the 1990s (or subsequently, in the current phase). Only the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Samajwadi Party may pass that test. This is because of the two distinct considerations that are involved here. One is the consideration of the all-India scenario associated with a grand narrative of “the secular versus the communal.” The other is the consideration of power at the state level, where the communal question arises only as a secondary one and/or fighting against the BJP is of secondary importance and dependent on compulsions of state politics.

So, here is the irony: compared to the Congress, parties like the TMC, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), AIADMK (or DMK), Shiv Sena, etc, are in a much better shape to compete with the BJP and possibly stall its onward march in those respective states. Yet, at the same time, their state-specific concerns often do not allow many of these parties to either oppose the BJP or to join an all-India anti-BJP front. Thus, they are the bosses in their states but they are also shackled by the fact of being state parties. They must, in the first place, ensure their survival at the state level before and besides stepping onto the national-level political scene. It is possible to imagine five calculations that may drive the choices made by the state parties with respect to both their stand vis-à-vis the so-called all-India parties and their role in national-level political competition.

(i) As already indicated, the primary concern of the state parties is to retain their respective spatial fortresses, the states. They are circumscribed by state-specific considerations and fallouts that may emanate from subscribing to the all-India narrative. Thus, when the Mandal narrative arose, parties—mostly factions within the Janata Dal at that juncture—like the Lok Shakti in Karnataka led by Ramakrishna Hegde or the Biju Patnaik faction, believed that the Mandal rhetoric was not useful or not required in their respective states and hence, they did not participate in that rhetoric. On the other hand, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav wholeheartedly sought to convert that logic into an all-India frame because they stood to benefit from it in their states and also hoped to gain an all-India profile through that issue gaining salience at the all-India level.

(ii) States tend to develop state-specific structures of competition and state parties adapt to the competitive frame in their respective states. This means that choices about alliances are made keeping in view the players in the state and their strengths. TDP chose to keep company with the BJP chiefly because its main rival in the state was the Congress party. Such state level considerations mean that frames of the all-India competition are secondary to state parties in choosing their alliance partners. In the current scenario, the stand being taken by the JD(U) probably speaks more about its exasperation with Lalu’s RJD than about its position on the communal question. Earlier too, Nitish chose to align with the BJP in order to neutralise Lalu Prasad Yadav. Likewise, Mamata’s decision to join the NDA was more about her anti-left politics than about her concern for secularism.

(iii) Even the social configurations in each state are different from those posited at the all-India level and state parties find it difficult to defy those configurations in favour of more distant all-India considerations. In the all-India consideration, for instance, a presidential candidate coming from a Dalit background symbolises the attention paid to the larger “Dalit constituency” but from the viewpoint of the state party, it is also important to strike a balance among the intra-Dalit groups. Thus, Nitish Kumar must have felt the need to neutralise both the BJP’s efforts to win over the Mahadalits and the presence of Ram Vilas Paswan, besides ensuring that he retains the upper hand over his friend-turned-foe-turned-friend Lalu Prasad.

(iv) A non-BJP alliance means breaking bread with the Congress in most states. But state parties stand to gain very little from the Congress. This has been disastrously demonstrated by the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. If a state party is unlikely to gain from the Congress, then it functions as a disincentive to join a non-BJP alliance. Therefore, it is necessary that the Congress puts its house in order and gains organisational strength so that a non-BJP coalition with many state parties becomes viable. This obviously has a catch. Congress often tends to gain strength only—or mainly—by competing with its potential alliance partners rather than winning over the BJP’s supporters. In other words, unless the Congress has a masterplan to penetrate the BJP’s current social base and supplement that with the social base of its partners, state parties would not have enough interest in talking of the non-BJP grand alliance.

(v) Finally, state parties may also (mis)calculate their own ability as key players in the state and expect that aligning with the BJP does not threaten the stable social equations in the state. Most state parties tend to commit the mistake of considering that the BJP is only a marginal player in the politics of the state. Hegde made this mistake and ended up facilitating the shift of the Lingayat base to the BJP in Karnataka. The TDP and AIADMK are on the verge of doing the same thing in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu respectively. In the process, state parties stand to lose their grip on local politics but their short-term overconfidence or desperation pushes them into the miscalculation.

State Parties

While this analytical lens allows us to understand why state parties align or do not align with a given all-India narrative, it also indicates the fluidity of the typology called state parties. Parties are often prisoners of considerations of power. The foregoing calculations may constrain state parties, but at least some state parties are also driven by a different consideration. The present moment, like the 1990s, also poses a dilemma before many so-called “state parties.” The weakness of the Congress encourages state parties to occupy the opposition space not merely in combination with other state parties, but by becoming the main opposition themselves. This can happen if a state party acquires a leading position in the oppositional coalition. It can also happen if a state party seeks to expand its base beyond the state. The BJP’s rising dominance means that competitive politics is experiencing a vacuum as far as opposition space at the all-India level is concerned. While some state parties, like the Akalis or the Dravid parties or the Telugu parties, are incapable of expanding outside of their states, the current moment is one for expansion as far as parties like the JD(U) are concerned. Just as the Aam Aadmi Party sensed an opportunity to expand outside of Delhi and keeps nursing the all-India ambition, the JD(U) too, now senses that a weak Congress and strong BJP means an opportunity to expand beyond Bihar, even though that might mean cosying up to the BJP once again. The JD(U)’s sudden recalcitrance about opposition unity and its rediscovery of the Congress’s arrogance have to do with this effort to seize the opportunity presented by circumstance.

Trapped JD(U)

The JD(U) is thus trapped in a dual imprisonment. On the one hand, it is trapped in its long-drawn battle with the RJD over Bihar. On the other hand, it is also caught in its exaggerated calculation of an all-India role and possibility of expansion outside Bihar. In the present case, both these entrapments have pushed it into the same direction of distancing from the Congress and from opposition unity in general. Once upon a time, the JD(U) aligned with the BJP for the sake of its Bihar-based concerns. Now it is set on doing the same to gain a wider national presence. Nitish Kumar’s choice also indicates the limited capacities of state parties in creating a new discourse or forcing a new frame of competition.

The smaller lesson from this episode then, is that it might be unreasonable to expect transformational drive from state parties and that many of them might be disinterested even in contingent anti-BJP mobilisation. But the larger lesson is probably more worrying: political players can be divided between those who maximise existing opportunities for power irrespective of broader political concerns and those who maximise space for the political within existing power opportunities. From the ongoing developments, it looks like Nitish Kumar is happy to belong to the first category. The real worry is, in India’s current political scenario, one does not find many players even trying to populate the latter category.



Updated On : 14th Jul, 2017


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