Poison on menu at Bihar wedding feast

Poison on menu at Bihar wedding feast

By M.J. Akbar | 13 June, 2015
It does not matter where the wedding procession begins, or where it ends, Nitish Kumar has to be the bridegroom, or there will be no wedding at all.

Marriage, noted George Bernard Shaw, the finest playwright in English since Shakespeare, is an institution that thrives because there are such excellent divorce laws. Shaw, who was born in 1856, or one year before the British overthrew Bahadur Shah Zafar, and died in 1950, three years after India won independence, would have chortled at the suggestion that his maxim was so perfectly suited to the Bihar Assembly elections of 2015. Shaw was always irrepressible, and never irresponsible.

The shotgun wedding between Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav reaffirms the Shavian adage: some marriages need a prenuptial divorce clause. To be fair, Lalu Yadav is under no illusions. He rather dampened celebrations with the remark, made with all the pathos of a victim, that his diet at the wedding feast was poison.

The problem is not too complicated, if you understand the running theme of Nitish Kumar's politics. It does not matter where the wedding procession begins, or where it ends, Nitish Kumar has to be the bridegroom, or there will be no wedding at all. Such a claim, in politics, must be sustained by ground reality. The present Bihar scenario is succinct: Nitish Kumar is a leader without a party, and Lalu Yadav's outfit, thanks to his conviction in the fodder scam, is a party without a leader. Their deal, in practical terms, amounts to this. Yadav has to do the heavy lifting of votes, while Nitish Kumar picks up the cherry of top job.

This is why Nitish Kumar the bridegroom is always desperately in search of someone else's horse to ride. Alone, he goes nowhere. For a decade and a half, he used BJP as his horse, and did very well out of it, enjoying a major Cabinet position in Delhi before he became Chief Minister in Patna. When, in 2013, he miscalculated and thought he could become Prime Minister after the 2014 general elections, he ditched BJP without a minor flicker of guilt. Lalu Yadav knows that if it took Kumar 15 years to abandon the BJP, it will take him only 15 days to abandon Yadav. Lalu Yadav is staring at abuse after being used.

The Nitish-Lalu Yadav deal, in practical terms, amounts to this. Yadav has to do the heavy lifting of votes, while Nitish Kumar picks up the cherry of top job. This is why Nitish Kumar the bridegroom is always desperately in search of someone else’s horse to ride. Alone, he goes nowhere.

The long game has already begun. Both "partners" are determined to protect their interests by maximising their share of MLA candidates in the distribution of seats. Clever little stories are being planted in media with all the abandon of shrubs in a rainforest. The most imaginative one has emerged from the Nitish Kumar camp, which hopes that a deflated Congress will also become part of the package. Opinion polls give Congress between two and five seats at the moment, but obviously the party's ambitions are more grandiose. It wants to contest somewhere in the vicinity of 60 seats. Where will they come from? From the seats that BJP won in the last Assembly elections, suggests the Nitish storytellers.

Very clever. In the last Assembly polls, Nitish Kumar was an ally of BJP. In other words, he is not ready to part with any seat that he won five years ago, but is very generous with seats where Lalu Yadav came second, and therefore is a legitimate claimant this time around. Obviously, the seasoned Yadav leader is nobody's fool. This concoction is about as believable as the plant that Rahul Gandhi was the mastermind behind the alliance. You have to be brain-dead to believe that Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar need instructions from Rahul Gandhi on what is in their best interests. But I suppose such media agriculture is par for the course at election time.

The early commentary is, however, repeating an old mistake. An election is not about arithmetic. Some silly mathematics is in play: add this number to that, on the basis of demographic aggregation, or switch so much from here to there, and presto! If it were that simple, the Election Commission could consult a statistician rather than check with the electorate. Every election is fought on the basis of new realities. There is, moreover, a substantial, growing percentage which will vote on issues above caste loyalty, particularly among the young. Their decision will determine the result.

The swing in the next Bihar Assembly polls will hinge on the most fundamental of all fundamentalist questions: who can provide a stable government, which is a non-negotiable requisite for good governance? Bihar has paid a huge price for chronic instability. Lalu Yadav did get a stable mandate, but he could not deliver governance. The Nitish Kumar-BJP alliance gave Bihar stability and governance, until Nitish Kumar wrecked it. This is going to be the first Assembly election in Bihar after significant upheavals in the political landscape: Narendra Modi's emergence as a national leader; Nitish Kumar's long-winded, tortured switch to existential foe Lalu Yadav; Jitan Ram Manjhi's installation and eviction by Nitish Kumar; Lalu Yadav's departure from the CM stakes, and a consequent transfer of power to the next generation in his family. Imponderables make democracy a wonderfully exciting process.

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