Where’s Nitish Kumar’s RSS?
Unlike anti-Congress forces in past polls, the JD(U) leader doesn’t have anti-BJP foot-soldiers
Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar and president of the Janata Dal (United), has positioned himself as an early starter in the race to the 2019 election and called for a grand alliance against the BJP. He has couched it in the language of a ‘Sangh-mukt Bharat’ (an India free of the RSS network), and said he is opposed to ‘Sanghvaad’ (RSS thought) rather than to the BJP politically. But that is only semantics.
Can Kumar succeed? As a thirdterm chief minister with no corruption scandals or family baggage, with a reasonable record in governance and a certain name recall, he may believe he has it in him to lead an opposition front against Narendra Modi. He has been encouraged, of course, by the success in Bihar, where the JD(U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress combined to vanquish the BJP a few months ago.
The prospect – or hope – of an allcomers coalition against the BJP is a throwback to similar efforts against the Congress in previous decades. While some such efforts did succeed – and this would give Kumar room for optimism – the experience also points to the challenges. In sum, there are two contradictions Kumar needs to tackle.
First, the opposition to the BJP is taking two divergent parts, with the fault line being the Congress (or, per- haps, the Congress-CPI(M) partnership, should it sustain itself beyond Jawaharlal Nehru University and West Bengal). Kumar and the JD(U) are clearly seeing a supportive, but intrinsic, role for the Congress in a pre-election alliance. This has not gone down well with key non-BJP groups such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
Another big gap is in Uttar Pradesh, where neither Mayawati nor Mulayam Singh Yadav would want to give the Congress oxygen by offering it an alliance. Others in the non-BJP category, such as the Dravida parties in Tamil Nadu or Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), are less consequential at this stage because they can do a deal with anybody, at any time.
In West Bengal, Kumar’s decision to tie up with the Congress-CPI (M) front and send Sharad Yadav, senior JD(U) politician, for a combined election rally with Congress and CPI(M) speakers has put off Mamata Banerjee.
The AAP, which has eaten into the Congress space in Delhi and is taking it on (as well as taking on the Akali Dal-BJP combine) in Punjab, and possibly Goa and Himachal Pradesh in later months, too doesn’t want a slot for the Congress or the communists. The AAP is pitching itself as left-of-centre, but decidedly non-communist.
Second, while Kumar wants a Sangh-free polity, he cannot run away from the fact that the convening and mobilising capacity of the RSS network has been critical in every successful anti-Congress electoral move in the past. Who or what will fill this gap for proponents of an anti-BJP alliance?
In an Emergency
Consider history. There have been three compelling anti-Congress elections – in 1977, 1989 and 2014. What was the social and political composition of the winners?
In the 1970s, in the ferment before the Emergency and then in the campaign in 1977, the Sangh played a significant role. In 1989, RSS organisations gave VP Singh a push in large parts of northern, central and western India. In 2014, the RSS network made up for the BJP’s institutional weakness, especially in states such as UP, to win a mandate for Modi.
This is not to suggest the RSS did it alone. The socialists were equally heroic in the Emergency period and in 1977. In 1989, the Janata parivar, the southern regional parties and the communists in their states (as well as in pockets of UP and Bihar, where they then counted) bolstered VP Singh.
In 2014, the non-Sangh incremental vote was instrumental in taking Modi and the BJP to an absolute majority. Yet, the RSS was also needed. Its labours may not have been sufficient to win an election, but they were necessary.
Nitish Kumar cannot discount and ignore this factor. An ad blitz and a media campaign will need to be complemented by door-to-door canvassing and booth management. Who will provide Kumar’s ‘Sanghmukt Bharat’ mission the foot-soldiers for this?
The communists, marginal at the best of times, are contracting still further, even in their traditional bastions. As for the Congress, if it had the capacity to mobilise votes and support at the grassroots in substantial numbers, it would be doing so for Rahul Gandhi. Why would it settle for Plan B and Nitish Kumar?
The fact is the BJP and Sangh network’s ability to build groundlevel support and bring out voters is unmatched in India today. Does it cover a majority of all Indians? No. Is it bigger than the Congress’ ability to do all this in, say, the 1950s or in the 1971 election? No. Even so, is it bigger than the Congress as it is today, with the shrinking footprint of that party? It would certainly appear so.
What does this mean for 2019? Any social and political coalition, whether the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance or a Congress-backed Nitish-Designed Alliance, will need a fulcrum around which to build a narrative. The RSS family gives Modi that fulcrum. Where is Nitish Kumar’s RSS?
Damn, he gets to wave the flag