Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) shakes hands with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar during a National Democratic Alliance rally in Patna in the eastern Indian state of Bihar on March 3, 2019. Photo: AFP / STR

“In politics nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it is planned that way.” That famous quote is widely attributed to Franklin D Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States. While he may not have actually uttered those exact words, in today’s era of propaganda-based politics, its sentiment is quite true.

Elections are like war, and the battlefield is people’s minds. The one with a better understanding of the battlefield, combined with a proper strategy and early moves, will have an advantage.  

Just when India’s 2024 general election was being perceived as a “done deal” for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the state of Bihar appears to have turned the tables.

The decision on August 9 by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to dump the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition led by the BJP and join hands with the opposition Grand Alliance to form a new government shook the country.

The political coup in the state has certainly changed the national political landscape. It has thrown the game wide open with a new line of hope for the opposition.

The land of revolution 

Bihar is known for being a crucible for social and political movements that reverberate through the country. From the soil of Bihar, various political revolutions have bloomed that have gone on to change India’s political landscape.

The state also played a crucial role in Mahatma Gandhi’s political career. The Champaran Satyagraha of 1917 was the first civil-disobedience movement launched by Gandhi. Thanks to this movement, Mohandas Gandhi’s political career was shaped and the titles of Bapu (Father) and Mahatma (Great Soul) were given to him.

Then in the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi was at the peak of her power as prime minister and corruption was rampant across the country, Bihar once again showed the direction to India. A movement was launched by veteran Gandhian Socialist Jayaprakash Naryan in 1974, known as JP Movement, against the misrule and corruption in the state government, ultimately leading to the fall of Indira’s central government.

Now Bihar appears to be showing the way once again.

The immediate trigger of this coup in Bihar is attributed to a statement made by BJP president J P Nadda at a party meeting. He announced in Patna, the capital of Bihar, that soon all other political parties would vanish and only the BJP would remain.

Over the years, the BJP has used federal agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation and Directorate of Enforcement (ED) as tools for political witch-hunts against key opposition leaders in state governments. Maharashtra is a recent example.

In Maharashtra, the opposition government led by Shiv Sena was toppled after a senior Shiv Sena leader, Eknath Shinde, rebelled against the party. Eknath Shinde walked away with 44 out of 50 leaders and later on formed a government with BJP in the state. The rebel Sena leaders took refuge in three BJP states until they could effect a change in the guard of Maharashtra.

Similarly, in 2020, the Indian National Congress government led by Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh was toppled after senior Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia rebelled against the party along with several members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). The BJP came to power in the state soon after. In the southern state of Karnataka, the script was the same. 

What happened in Bihar was simply a defensive move by Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar. He feared his party might be split like the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra by way of a renegade party leader, Ram Chandra Prasad Singh. But the recent developments in Bihar have proved that the tables can be turned on the saffron party too.

It comes as a ray of hope for the opposition parties, which have lost one government after another because of the BJP’s machinations. But the loss of its coalition government with the Janata Dal (United) party in Bihar underlines the shortcomings of the BJP’s newfound strategy of supremacy.

The BJP earlier targeted only leaders of opposition parties, but now has done so even against a coalition partner. The JD(U) is the third key ally to sever ties with the BJP in the last three years after Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, which has a considerable vote bank.

Currently, the BJP has a total of 303 members in the lower house of Parliament, just about 30 more than the halfway mark of 272, the majority required to form a government. The loss of a strong ally like JD(U) is a major blow for the BJP, as Bihar was the second most vital state for the BJP’s Hindutava-driven politics after Uttar Pradesh. 

In the 2019 general election, the BJP-led NDA coalition won 39 of the 40 seats in Bihar, thanks to its alliance with Nitish Kumar. The BJP got 17 seats, JD(U) got 16 seats, and six were taken by another coalition partner.

Looking at the image of the BJP among its allies, the new alliance will be tough. The BJP would need to pick up all 40 seats in Bihar to touch the majority mark in the 2024 general election. With no major coalition partner and given the anti-incumbency factor, a repeat of the 2019 general election will be hard for the BJP to achieve.

But apart from that, Bihar has changed the political debate about whether India is witnessing a return of “kamandal-versus-mandal” politics.

Mandal 2.0 

The term “mandal-kamandal” gained popularity in the mid-1990s among regional parties. Mandal is a term often used in politics involving Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes, while the kamandal is a water pot often used by spiritual leaders or Hindu priests, and is a metaphor to denote the upper-caste Hindu or those who follow Hindutva ideology.

This has its origins in the Mandal Commission, which was established in 1979 by the Janata Party government to “identify the socially or educationally backward classes” of India. Mandal has been a successful antidote to the kamandal politics in the past.

However, using this plank directly will not be a clever move by the opposition parties at the 2024 general election. They must try to mobilize the OBCs at a lower level and try to build a narrative on the issues affecting the middle class or common public such as unemployment, inflation, economic growth, and equal representation in government. These are the areas where the Modi government has failed miserably.

The developments in Bihar may well energize the fragmented opposition. It will have serious implications in the Hindi heartland, which has close to 225 seats in Parliament, and caste-based politics is still relevant.

Nitish Kumar is a seasoned politician who mastered the art of social engineering and political timing, which accounts for his success of remaining chief minister of Bihar for 17 years. Whether he remains consistent with his words or the opposition alliance only time will tell, but certainly, things have become quite tough for the BJP ahead of the 2024 general election. 

Ravi Kant is a columnist and correspondent for Asia Times based in New Delhi. He mainly writes on economics, international politics and technology. He has wide experience in the financial world and some of his research and analyses have been quoted by the US Congress and Harvard University. He is also the author of the book Coronavirus: A Pandemic or Plandemic. He tweets @Rk_humour.