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Does Ideology Matter At All In Today’s Indian Politics?

Nitish Kumar has switched from one alliance to the other depending on the winnability factor and the hunger to win has dominated his political career. While the ideology of social justice politics is sustained in his policies, it cannot precede his efforts to dodge any prospect of being unseated.

Photo: Illustration by Saahil
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In the run-up to the 2015 Bihar Assembly elections, when Nitish Kumar was fighting without his traditional ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the first time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi commented that the party made a big sacrifice by making Kumar the CM in 2005. Soon after, senior JD (U) leaders jumped in to defend their leader and said it was Kumar’s popularity that forced the BJP to elect him.

Modi’s jibe at Kumar did not come out of nowhere. He was the only NDA member who, in 2013, strongly opposed Modi’s projection as the prime ministerial candidate. He also made this the ground to end 17 years of their political relationship and paved the way for a new coalition—the Mahagathbandhan.

But the bitterness did not last long. In 2017, Kumar quit the Mahagathbandhan and re-joined the NDA. However, in 2022, he again quit the NDA and re-joined the Mahagathbandhan, only to be back in 2024, just before the Lok Sabha elections, probably sensing which way the political winds are blowing. Some may question his flip-flops, but one thing is evident—he will always have his way.

As Kumar is getting ready for his second Lok Sabha innings under the leadership of Modi, sources from the INDIA bloc told Outlook that the two parties made a deal before he officially announced his return to the NDA. The first component of the deal was conferring the Bharat Ratna posthumously to Karpoori Thakur, the former chief minister of Bihar, who hails from the Extremely Backward Class (EBC) Nai community. It was done to consolidate Kumar’s Luv-Kush vote bank—the alliance of the agricultural Kurmi and the Koeri castes that has remained his support base. The second was related to the much-awaited special package for the state. Though the political deal is not public, the congratulatory tweets of PM Modi addressing Kumar and the Bihar CM’s response showing gratitude pushes one to read between the lines.

Kumar’s act of shifting ideological positions—from being a Modi-baiter to his grateful soldier—evokes a very complex question: does ideology matter at all in today’s politics? To understand this, one needs to revisit the time when Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav used to be close friends and were the proponents of social justice politics.

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In the 1970s, most of the parties coming out of the JP movement—a political movement initiated by students against corruption in the state government, which was led by Jayaprakash Narayan (JP)—had several factions. The Janata Dal (JD)—founded by V P Singh in 1988 by merging the Janata Party and two smaller parties that were a part of the United Front—was no different. In 1994, citing differences in opinion, Kumar and George Fernandes left the JD and founded the Samata Party. Another faction of the JD—under the leadership of Lalu Prasad Yadav—became the RJD in 1997.

The turmoil in JD did not end with Lalu and Kumar’s departure. In 1999, it became a matter of ideology when one section of the JD, led by H D Deve Gowda, decided to oppose the decision of the Sharad Yadav-led faction to join the NDA. To differentiate himself from the alleged non-secular and communalised ideology of the Yadav faction, Gowda founded his own party and named it JD (Secular). The rest of the JD came to be known as Janata Dal (United), JD (U).

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This was the first ideological struggle within the JD when the party was split on the grounds of different perceptions of secularism. However, Yadav needed big names to form a formidable coalition. In 2003, he found the most suitable candidate in the Samata Party. It was merged with the Yadav faction. The JD (U) was reconstituted, making Fernandes the president and Sharad Yadav, the head of the Parliamentary Board. The emergence of Kumar as the central figure was still a couple of years away.

In 2005, the JD (U) became the second-largest party in Bihar after the RJD. However, as the RJD failed to form the government, the state again went to the polls, giving Fernandes’ party a commendable victory with 88 seats. The JD (U) formed the government with the support of the BJP and Kumar became the CM.

Though the deal is not public, the congratulatory tweets of PM Modi addressing Kumar and the Bihar CM’s response showing gratitude pushes one to read between the lines.

It was a determining moment for both the BJP and the JD (U). After almost a decade-long struggle, they were able to replace the RJD. Hence, they did not want to take any chances. According to political analysts, this is one of the major reasons that despite his reservations about the alleged communal politics of the BJP, Kumar preferred to hold their hands.

Notably, though the foundational ethos of the JD (U) stems from the debate over joining an apparently non-secular front back in 1999, Kumar tried to maintain his secular credentials throughout. Later, it even became a matter of campaign for the BJP against the JD (U) and its ideology.

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On August 24, 2005, while addressing a debate on the reservations for Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims in the Lok Sabha, Kumar said: “Some castes are considered Scheduled Caste among Hindus, but there are similar castes in Muslim communities who do not receive the benefits that the SCs get. Dalit castes among Muslims should also be included.”

Invoking this speech in an electoral campaign during the 2015 Assembly elections, PM Modi said that Kumar was trying to steal away reservation from the marginalised communities—the SC, ST and OBC Hindus. “He had made his intentions clear in 2005. They lost their cool when I alleged that they want to steal away five per cent of reservation from the quota given to SCs/STs/OBCs and EBCs and give it to a particular community,” the PM fumed.

Media reports suggest that within a few months of Kumar taking charge in 2005, a few BJP leaders accused him of running the government in an autocratic manner, and he offered to resign. The BJP, knowing well that it would not be able to afford the loss, immediately stepped back.

It was just a few months before the 2010 Assembly elections that Kumar reportedly started showing his antipathy towards Modi when he came to attend the BJP’s national executive meeting in Patna. By this time, Kumar had made some impact on Lalu’s core Muslim vote bank which he did not want to lose.

The results of the 2010 Assembly polls—where Kumar got 115 seats and the BJP 91—further strengthened his opposition to Modi, and in 2013 he snapped ties with the BJP.

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In 2014, Kumar was swept away by the Modi wave and his tally in the Lok Sabha was reduced to just two, but in the 2015 Assembly elections, he formed a grand alliance with the RJD and the Congress and led it to an unprecedented victory by winning 178 seats against the BJP’s 53.

This transition of Kumar’s JD (U) from one alliance to the other, depending on the winnability factor, comes along with his assertion of supremacy within the party. While senior leader Sharad Yadav was the party president until 2016, his growing proximity to Lalu Yadav irked Kumar and he became the president. Later, he deputed Lalan Singh but recently removed him as well.

The hunger to win has dominated the political career of Kumar. In 2015, he hired Prashant Kishor’s consultancy agency I-PAC—just a year after he resigned as Bihar CM, and won. Kishor became his close aide and in 2018 was anointed as the party vice-president.

In conclusion, while the ideology of social justice politics for Kumar is sustained in policies, it cannot precede his efforts to dodge any prospect of being unseated. As the fate of the INDIA bloc is hanging on the brink, Kumar probably thought it is the right time to jump the boat.

(This appeared in print as '(Non) Ideological Journey?')

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