Advantage Nitish but poll game isn’t over yet

Why did Nitish Kumar walk out of the NDA? Three explanations have been offered. The first is Nitish’s own version. He says that he cannot be part of an alliance whose effective prime ministerial candidate is Narendra Modi, who Nitish regards as anti-Muslim and divisive. As it is, he suggests, he comes from a secular tradition and was only able to accept an alliance with the BJP because of the moderate nature of A.B. Vajpayee’s views. Now, he says, he is willing to work with L.K. Advani who has left his past as the rath yatri behind him. But the hardcore Hindutva wing of the party is unacceptable.

Then there is the view of political analysts. They say that Nitish is concerned about the state’s Muslim minority. At present, Bihar is fragmented into different vote blocs. There are several parties fighting for control of these blocs: Laloo’s RJD, the BJP, the Congress and Paswan’s LJP. In this situation, there will be many close contests. And a swing of one or two per cent can decide the outcome of any election. In these circumstances, Nitish does not want to alienate a large chunk of his electorate.

And then, there is the explanation offered by the BJP. Modi supporters say that Nitish had agreed to the appointment of Modi as head of the campaign committee and was prepared to say that this was the BJP’s internal affair. He only changed his mind when Advani protested Modi’s elevation. Given that the controversy was raging, Nitish thought this was an ideal time to walk out on a matter of principle. Plus, he has kept the door slightly ajar, suggesting he might return to the NDA if Advani become Prime Minister.

For all this, there is no doubt that Nitish has done himself considerable harm. In a fractured polity, arithmetic often counts for more than performance or ideology. One reason why the NDA did well at the last Lok Sabha poll in Bihar was because the combination of Nitish’s vote bank and the BJP’s support base gave it a decisive edge in many constituencies. On the other hand, Laloo, whose grasp of arithmetic is poor, did not realize how much he needed the Congress’ vote share, broke his alliance and paid the price.

This time around, Nitish faces two disadvantages. The first is, of course, arithmetic. Any party that leaves an alliance to fight on its own risks losing seats. The second is that, in a Lok Sabha election, voters are swayed by national issues and look to pan-Indian parties and coalitions rather than regional outfits. To be fair, this does not always happen but if there is a strong anti-Congress feeling and a pro-Modi wave, then Nitish’s party is bound to suffer.

Nitish is not a fool. He must know all this. So, why then did he break the alliance?

A poll conducted by C-Voter for Headlines Today this week tells us that Nitish will lose seats and that the BJP will gain. But here’s what is interesting. At present, the NDA has 32 seats from Bihar. But if the BJP goes it alone, arithmetic ensures that no matter how much it gains in vote share, it will only win 16 seats. That means that without Nitish, the NDA will halve its Bihar total. This cannot be good news for a coalition that hopes to install Narendra Modi as Prime Minister.

The argument in favour of Modi has rested on an interpretation of a paradox. Yes, say Modi supporters, a Modi candidacy will scare away such allies as Nitish Kumar. But this will not matter because Modi’s leadership will so increase the BJP’s tally that the NDA will easily win around 230 seats. Once that happens, they argue, it will not be difficult to get the Jayalalithas and Mayawatis to fall in line. Yes, the likes of Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee and perhaps Jagan Mohan Reddy may be reluctant to join a Modi-led coalition but they will certainly support it from outside, claiming that the country needs an alternative to the Congress.

The C-Voter poll suggests that there are problems with the interpretation of the paradox. Perhaps Modi’s leadership will bump up the BJP’s numbers. But it will not elevate them sufficiently for the displeasure of the allies to be overcome. In fact, these numbers suggest that a BJP/NDA that only touches 200 will not be able to get 80 more seats under Modi’s leadership. That’s when somebody like L.K. Advani will offer to step in as a consensus candidate.

My guess is that Nitish Kumar has made these calculations. The Lok Sabha polls don’t really matter to him. No matter what happens, he will continue as chief minister of Bihar. And the Assembly polls are still two years away. So, in a sense, he has nothing to lose.

The BJP, on the other hand, does have a lot to lose. Not only has Nitish’s withdrawal increased the perception of divisiveness surrounding Modi (and Advani has encouraged that view) but it may also seriously dent the NDA’s tally.

Of course, there is still a year to go. It is possible that Narendra Modi will tour Bihar, receive a rapturous response and ensure that the BJP sweeps the state.

But as of now, the JDU may not have won the game but it is certainly Advantage Nitish.

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