Nitish Kumar and the decline of Narendra Modi

Sushil Aaron
After the election debacle in Bihar, India’s Prime Minister will need to move to the centre, alter his handling of power and seek legitimacy through a different form of optics

There is not a politically-interested liberal in India who did not exult about Narendra Modi being roundly defeated by the Nitish Kumar-led alliance in Bihar’s assembly elections on November 8. For an India exhausted with the ruling BJP’s unapologetic majoritarianism and its attempt to impose a culturally regressive agenda, this is a breather many were waiting for.
The Bihar victory came just as liberals were at their wit’s end about ways to halt right-wing brazenness that saw well-known rationalists being killed, Muslims targeted on mere suspicion of consuming beef or killing cows, and writers and playwrights warned about their “offensive” work and Modi himself – far from being above the noise and dirt as Prime Minister – ran a deeply divisive campaign accusing Kumar of sheltering terrorists and alleging that he and his partner Lalu Prasad Yadav were “framing a sinister plan” to snatch quotas from Dalits and other marginal groups and “give it to members of a religious group”. Though the PM took no names, it was clear that he meant Muslims.
In recent months, India’s public sphere has been so saturated by illiberal vigilantism that it was getting pointless to respond. Nothing seemed able to stop the right-wing juggernaut. Liberals pushed back enthusiastically on social media and TV talk shows; in fact till Nitish and Lalu started a counter-attack it looked like that the only opposition that India had was on Twitter, which too was counteracted by Modi’s own aggressive and irascible army of trolls. With the opposition weakened, the media largely compliant, dissenters in his own party silenced and business eager to curry favour, it was difficult to anticipate how Modi and the BJP could be contained. Only a firm pushback from electors could have an impact – and Bihar has offered India the pause.
The Bihar defeat is a huge setback for Modi, and possibly the beginning of his decline for several reasons. First, there is now a new player on the national scene to contend with. Bihar is a big state of 100 million people, larger than countries like Egypt, Germany, Iran, Turkey, France and the UK. Any leader winning a big Hindi heartland state immediately becomes a Prime Ministerial prospect – and Nitish Kumar having won three state elections in a row, with vast administrative experience, a clean image, impeccable secular credentials and sharp debating skills can now become a rallying point for the opposition. Kumar has now superseded Congress’s Rahul Gandhi as a PM possibility and the latter himself may, in time, not be averse to endorsing Kumar, given his own ambivalence about (and poor chances of) taking on high office.
The Bihar loss has also weakened Modi’s hold over his party. In an astonishing turn of events, four ‘elders’ of the BJP – LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Sinha and Shanta Kumar – issued a statement clearly targeting Modi and his close ally and BJP president Amit Shah. It said “a thorough review must be done of the reasons for the defeat as well as of the way the Party is being forced to kow-tow to a handful, and how its consensual character has been destroyed”. The leaders said the party was emasculated over the last year and stated that the review “must not be done” by those responsible for the campaign in Bihar.
The statement embarrasses Modi and puts him in a difficult bind. He can neither ignore a statement of such seniors nor be seen as initiating disciplinary proceedings against them for going public with their concerns.
The statement is being dismissed as that of four disgruntled veterans who were marginalised by Modi. But it is also likely that it articulates concerns of BJP politicians about their own electability if the party continues with its hardline turn. Modi will continue to be backed by loyalists in the party and business, but there is no mistaking the diminution in his stature, which has a bearing on party fortunes. Foreign leaders will continue to politely defer to him owing to his office but the list of those disapproving of the right-wing turn on his watch has grown. President Obama has cautioned India about religious freedom, the New York Times is writing strong editorials on rising extremism, murmurs are emerging in the business community, writers and filmmakers are returning awards in protest, and distinguished intellectuals at home and abroad are issuing open letters about intolerance, challenging the narrative that his supporters in the diaspora have put out, and – there is growing consolidation of opposition at home.
BJP leaders in various states will be alert to the implications of Modi’s isolation and, out of self-interest, convey to the leadership that religious polarisation is not working and that it is undercutting the BJP’s ability to forge broad social coalitions.
Cutting losses at this time makes sense as there is little good news for the BJP on the horizon. The BJP and its allies are likely to face defeat in key states that go to polls over the next two years including West Bengal, Punjab, and many have started saying Uttar Pradesh, while it is not a player in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Assam is the one state where it can make a serious bid for power owing to anti-incumbency and a strong anti-Bangladeshi sentiment but that will not be consolation enough.
In UP, India’s largest state, what will particularly worry the BJP is the cue that the upper castes might take from the loss in Bihar. Hitching their fortunes to Modi has not worked and has instead mobilised other castes against them. They may well prefer to renew their links with BSP leader Mayawati who is able to rally a wider coalition of Dalits and Muslims. The potential loss of UP in 2017 means that Modi will be a severely weakened figure when he seeks re-election in 2019.
Modi clearly needs to change course and try and move more to the centre before it is too late. But that is easier said than done. He himself is an ideological figure and has the RSS – BJP’s parent organisation – to contend with, which is less keen on compromise on core issues. In theory, the RSS should go slow on its cultural agenda to both protect Modi – its best bet still for winning national elections – and reassure the pragmatic, entrepreneurial sections within the BJP. But restraining hardline figures in a Hindu nationalist organisation will be challenging.
Modi will aim to change the subject and focus on reform, in order to renew his appeal among the middle class. His government this week announced changes in FDI rules for 15 sectors, including defence, banking, retail, construction and the media. Their impact on job creation will take time. In the meanwhile, Modi’s primary imperative is to alter his handling and projection of power and seek legitimacy through a different form of optics. His approach so far has been to put his party, cabinet, business and the bureaucracy on a tight leash and get the media to relentlessly build his brand through foreign visits and road shows. He has avoided public accountability and refuses to be cross-examined by the media. He sees little need to cultivate the opposition and appears unconcerned about extremist rhetoric. The approach that he has adopted so far no longer works. Being aloof, distant and provoking fear are not durable instruments for maintaining authority in democracies. He just needs to convince India all over again that he is in it just for the governance.
Sushil Aaron is an Associate Editor at the Hindustan Times. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @SushilAaron