February 29, 2020
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The Federalism #Spoilu

Recasting his anti-Modi line, Nitish works the regional parties

The Federalism #Spoilu
Illustration by Sorit
The Federalism #Spoilu

Business, in these ‘reformed’ times, has quickened its political footwork. So it was no surprise that, with general elections formally scheduled for next summer, some corporate honchos, lobbyists and PR-media managers tried out some early moves last fortnight by orchestrating a Narendra Modi-Rahul Gandhi face-off of sorts. But for all the blustering directness of Modi and the polite evasions of Rahul, that experiment in antithetical placement proved boring. Far more entertaining at least was a parallel Twitterwar that mocked and mirrored them using the hashtags ‘#Feku’ and ‘#Pappu’. If it takes a spoiler (perhaps he’ll be called ‘#Spoilu’) to enliven the show, Nitish Kumar might just have stepped into that role.

The political plot thickened as the anti-Modi import of Nitish’s words at the JD(U)’s plenary in Delhi began to be echoed by Naveen Pat­naik of the bjd and the Shiv Sena. Some in the BJP even retrieved L.K. Advani’s name from the cold storage. And to top it, an opinion poll indicated a strengthening of regional parties, with the Congress down and the BJP lagging in growth—a sign of growing bargaining power for regional parties. Time then to pan the camera on the larger cast, the bigger picture.

What Nitish said at his party meeting was that the NDA should go for a prime ministerial candidate “like Vajpayee”, who “evoked rajdharma”, because the country needs a leader who can take all communities ahead together, which “might call for sometimes putting on a topi”. The reference to Modi as communal polariser clear enough, Nitish pointed out the holes in the Gujarat story—its unsatisfactory human development indices and so on, which many others have pointed out before. What is most interesting, however, is that Nitish combined these strands of criticism with the narrative of political and economic federalism. Setting this criticism in the framework of what Modi himself favours—a GDP-driven, infrastructure-based, globally integrated economic paradigm—Nitish has unsettled Modi’s prime ministerial campaign like a chastening tremor.

Nitish’s critics in the BJP, the UPA and the Left have been quick to point out his opportunistic flexibility on secularism: after all, he supported Advani’s prime ministerial candidature in 2009. In his defence, Nitish has said that, like his JD(U), many UPA allies had earlier endorsed lea­ders of a BJP that had gone quiet on the Ram temple, Article 370 and a uniform civil code. That logic might be thin, but the multi-pronged attack on Modi has rattled the BJP and pleased the Congress.

Nitish’s Modi-as-danger-to-federalism argument runs on these lines: “Gujarat’s poor are nearly as starved as Bihar’s. Modi can’t even provide potable water in large parts of his state. Gujarat has been integrated with the global economy for centuries because of its access to the sea and its trade routes, always attracting trade and investment, promoting manufacture and creating infrastructure for the movement of goods. We in Bihar, along with other states in eastern and central India,  were exploited dry by the Raj, and discriminated against post-independence by the policies of the so-called socialist state. Though we started late, Bihar is growing in per capita income, GDP and infrastructure faster than Gujarat now. The pace at which our human development indices are improving is also better than that of Gujarat. To catch up, we need more resources and investment. But Modi’s homogenising development model will only ensure that more resources and investment reach regions that historically have better infrastructure and economy. Therefore, his policies go against federalism and will widen regional imbalances, besides enhancing communal and caste asymmetries. All this will disrupt the developmental process.”

Colluding in Modi’s candidatural dream would be fatal for Nitish, for his chief claim today is that he has brought social harmony back to Bihar and pursued  development. And even the NHRC has said that Bihar’s record in prosecuting and securing convictions in communal riot cases is the best in the country. If Nitish is ready to risk the survival of his government with his anti-Modi tirade—the BJP is a major ally—it is because, in any case, it wouldn’t survive in the long run with Modi’s polarising disruption, should he become prime minister. Nitish may also have taken note of a recently launched door-to-door campaign in Bihar saying that Modi aims to complete the Hindutva tasks left incomplete in the country: the ground-level signals of the BJP stand out despite the camouflaging buzz of development, meant for the urban middle class. This may have made Nitish even more wary. Hence the playing up of the federalism issue to gain traction with regional players. It seems a strong move now, but there’s still time for the elections.

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