Sri Lanka is in turmoil, with irate mobs invading the Presidential palace in Colombo and setting on fire the Prime Minister’s private residence, fed up with the economic morass that the country has sunk into. At a time when even subsistence level income is not available, when 90% of the people have to skip at least one meal a day (according to the UN World Food Programme), when power cuts last for days, it takes three days of queuing up to fill a vehicle, when educational institutions are shut and hospitals run out of supplies of medicine and equipment, the anger at the mismanagement of the country by the government is understandable. In fact, it should not have taken a mob to make President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to promise to resign. He should have done it on his own even before Sri Lanka started defaulting on its loans. The Rajapaksa family is solely responsible for making their country go over the edge. In 2019, in spite of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s unpopularity—he had lost a Presidential election in 2015, just one of his many defeats—the people of Sri Lanka elected his younger brother Gotabaya as President as they saw in him an “outsider” from the military, who had a clean track record. However, once he came to power in 2019, Gotabaya appointed Mahinda as Prime Minister, leading to speculation that the reins of power were actually in the hands of Mahinda, since it was he who controlled the Rajapaksas’ political party. Ever since, a series of policy missteps and populism emptied Colombo’s coffers. The outbreak of Covid killed tourism, Lanka’s main revenue earner, aggravating the situation and resulting in the economy going belly-up. But even then the Rajapaksas were keen on clinging on to power. It took a major turmoil to make Mahinda resign, while at present, Gotabaya—who was once hugely popular—has fled his official residence and has promised to step down. The short two-month stint of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister could not alleviate the situation and now he has fallen to misdirected ire—misdirected, because he was actually trying to bring in some changes and was upfront about the problems he faced and appealed to the people to be with him. But when lives are at stake, patience is bound to run thin, and now Wickremesinghe too stands rejected. The question now is: just as the Sri Lankans were unwilling to give Wickremesinghe a chance, what is the guarantee that they will give the next government—even if it is an all-party government—the opportunity to stabilize the situation, which is anyway a humungous task and may take years? This raises important questions for India too. New Delhi is proving to be a true friend of Sri Lanka, having already given Colombo around $3.5 billion, apart from sending huge consignments of fuel, food, grains, and other forms of humanitarian aid. But how long can India continue to prop up Lanka, without help from international institutions that are putting too many conditionalities on Colombo before bailing it out? The western world is focused on Ukraine, but Sri Lanka too is facing a massive humanitarian crisis, because starvation kills, just like bombs and missiles do. Hence, some attention to this island nation for the sake of its people is needed, as it risks descending into another civil war and becoming a security threat to the Indian Ocean region.
Amid this, India’s biggest worry should be China, which has got a stranglehold on Sri Lanka, and has contributed to its downfall by letting it fall into a debt trap. China has made its increasing presence felt in Sri Lanka by making it a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is not just the Chinese-built port of Hambantota that India is worried about, but also the Colombo Port City the Chinese are building, apart from the influence China has in several other sectors. These ports are anyway likely to serve as observation posts to keep an eye on India, but the fear of these ports eventually becoming naval security outposts for China too cannot be ruled out. The possibility of Sri Lanka getting dragged into Xi Jinping’s proposed Global Security Initiative—a security platform to counter Quad and AUKUS—too is there, if Beijing decides to bail out Lanka. Compared to India’s, Beijing’s pockets are much deeper. Hence, New Delhi needs to get a guarantee from Colombo that the days of balancing between India and China are over; that Sri Lanka cannot have India helping it, and then quickly slide into China’s lap once China decides to step in after the situation has stabilized to an extent. Without getting involved in government formation in Lanka, which is a sovereign country and must get the government it wants, India needs to gently lay down certain conditions which Sri Lanka needs to take care of.
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Voters cheated, time to amend the defection law
The anti-defection law doesn’t provide for defection after a pre-poll alliance.
JDU leader and Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar is at it again. Nitish Kumar was sworn in as Chief Minister for the eighth time after resigning and then joining hands with RJD. In 2017, Nitish Kumar had dumped RJD after winning 2015 Assembly elections as part of Mahagathbandhan against BJP. In 2013, Nitish had snapped ties with BJP though he won the 2010 election mandate in alliance with the saffron party. It’s been a roller coaster ride for the Biharis considering the twists and turns of Nitish Kumar over the past decade. No ideology, no cause and no party seems sacrosanct for a thorough opportunist like Nitish Kumar. Sadly, the political system is indulgent of politicians like this for narrow short term gains even though clearly understanding that it wasn’t the voters’ choice. Voters have no say once elections are over and politicians like Nitish take advantage of it. The law has no recourse or restrictions to ensure this doesn’t happen despite the fact that this phenomena isn’t restricted to Bihar.
In 2019, the Shiv Sena and BJP fought elections in alliance as part of the Mahayuti. The incumbent Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis stayed true to his promise “Mi Punha Yein” when the voters gave a clear majority to the alliance. In the first press conference after election results, then Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray opportunistically declared that other options are open to him. In the following months, he completed the betrayal by forming an alliance with INC-NCP combine. A popular comedy show among Marathi manoos “Chala Hawa Yeu Dya” few months later would joke: “I distributed sweets after my son failed because most of the students in the class failed and we are therefore the majority.” While the joke was on Chief Minister sitting in audience, it’s the common man’s mandate which was humiliated when parties rejected by people formed government. There is a sickening level of apathy towards the common voters when politicians like Uddhav Thackeray and Nitish nonchalantly shift allegiance.
In a thriving democracy, every elected representative has rights to hold and act on his/her individual opinions. The allegiance to parties and interest groups should not be cast in stone. However, a free-run to individual interests, opinions and ideologies by elected representatives will only lead to chaos and anarchy. While an individual voter can be elusive in his choice of candidate and do shift their voting preference from one election to another, an elected representative should be subject to checks and balances to ensure he stays true to the role at least during the term of office. The Anti-defection law added to the constitution as the tenth schedule in 1985 was precisely to arrest the practice of legislators changing political affiliation. It was in response to the toppling of several state governments by party hopping MLAs after the election of 1967. As per the 1985 act, defection of one-third of the elected members was considered a merger which didn’t invite penalty. The 91st constitutional amendment act 2003 changed it to two-thirds. The anti-defection law has been remarkably successful in its purpose as no elected representative wants to lose his seat. However, the law doesn’t provide for defection after a pre-poll alliance. In short, retail defection of few MLAs aren’t allowed. Wholesale of MLAs by party leaders after misleading promises to voters is allowed. Horse traders will have a bad day while those selling the whole stable of horses like Uddhav Thackeray and Nitish Kumar are having a field day.
In the case of Bihar & Maharashtra, the biggest losers are the common voters who believed the pre-poll promise and accordingly transferred their votes to appropriate parties. Indian democracy has been deepening and successful evident from diverging patterns in State and National elections. The Indian voters even in less developed states have matured over the decades and vote strategically and also understand what they are voting for. We are today a largely literate country unlike the post-independence India where symbols where the only markers to distinguish party in a nation where illiteracy was the norm. The Indian political system has improved over the years to attract promising young men and women into the echelons of power. In a democracy, the classic voter dilemma is the choice between an individual candidate vs the choice of a political party, its ideology & its policies. In the elections of a village sarpanch or even a councilor, the preferred choice tilts over an individual and his work but the state and national mandate depends on the larger vision of the political party, their promise and their manifestos.
With increasing sophistication in the way elections are fought and won and higher awareness among the masses, the practice of opportunism needs to be curbed to retain the trust of the voters. An anti-defection law to ensure people aren’t cheated in pre-poll alliance is the need of the hour. Smaller parties with only handful of MLA’s or MPs who don’t have a reserved symbol nor recognition as State party or National party can be kept out for the purpose of greater autonomy. Every party with the requisite percentage of votes to be recognized as “National party” or “State party” should be brought under its ambit so that the likes of Uddhav Thackeray and Nitish Kumar aren’t allowed to steal the people’s mandate.
The author is BJP spokesperson, advisor to former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, and executive director of Maharashtra Village Social Transformation Foundation.
HISTORY WARS OVER JAWAHARLAL NEHRU’S LEGACY
While the 75th Anniversary of our Freedom was an occasion to celebrate, it has also unleashed a bitter round of legacy wars between the BJP and the Congress. With the BJP playing down Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his contribution to nation building, the Congress has retaliated with a blitzkrieg of videos, panel discussions and articles on all that Nehru stood for. For good measure, they have added old interviews and footage of Indira Gandhi as well. There is a reason for this. During the Independence Day build up, the BJP had been talking about how Nehru was to be blamed for partition, how Jinnah would never have pushed for partition had Nehru and Gandhiji made him Prime Minister of a united India and so on. If you heard some of the spokespersons on TV the entire blame for the partition was heaped on Nehru’s shoulders while giving him none of the credit for our independence. As the debate raged on during TV studio debates, the Prime Minister did make it a point to mention Nehru during his Red Fort speech while naming all those who fought for India’s Freedom. But those looking for such signs also noted that he did so after mentioning many others including the Right Wing icon, Veer Savarkar. The PM noted that the people of the country are thankful to Bapu, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Babasehed Ambedkar, Veer Savarkar who gave their lives on the path of duty (“kartavya”).
There is a backstory to this. For long, the right wing academicians and intelligentsia have noted how textbooks and signboards under the Congress rule have focused mainly on the achievements of one family to the exclusion of all the others, except perhaps Mahatma Gandhi. The political implications of course was that this was the narrative that kept Nehru’s descendants in power and electoral relevance. So when PM Modi and Amit Shah talk about waging war against Parivar-vad (dynasty), then it’s not too difficult to see that the focus is primarily around one name and his legacy. There is also an argument that the course correction needed to be done. Why did the country have to wait for a BJP Prime Minister before we saw Sardar Patel & Netaji Subash Chandra Bose being honoured? During the Modi era, we have also seen statues of other forgotten legends such as Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan who was sent by Sardar Patel to Srinagar and got Maharaja Hari Singh to sign the Instrument of Accession to India at a time when the Maharaja was dithering in Pakistan’s favour. Justice Mahajan was also a member of the Radcliffe Commission that was set up to demarcate the border between India and Pakistan. It was he who convinced the Commission to allocate Gurdaspur to India. If Gurdaspur had gone to Pakistan, then there would be no way to reach J&K through India. Last month, the Jammu BJP unveiled a statue in Justice Mehr Chand Mahajan’s honour though one of his sons had been a member of the Congress for a brief spell. Again, it is the Modi government that has earlier released a stamp in Justice Mahajan’s name.
Ditto for Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh a Jat Leader and a freedom fighter who donated part of the land for the Aligarh Muslim University. Raja Mahendra Pratap was a reformer who worked in the field of education and also took part in the freedom struggle. He established India’s first provisional government in Afghanistan (1915). Ignored by the Congress, it was only in 2021 the PM and state CM Yogi Adityanath laid the foundation stone for a school to be named after him in Aligarh.
There are many other regional leaders who have been so honoured by the Modi government. One could argue that there is an electoral agenda behind these moves, but at the same time, one has to concede that these are gestures that are long overdue. If only the Congress had honoured others along with their own dynastic icons. But there is a catch here—while honouring others, the BJP is doing no service to the nation if it continues to pull down the contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru. The party should also caution some of its rabid elements against targeting Gandhiji. Both Nehru and Patel can co-exist in history books. That is the diversity of democracy and that is the legacy that each of our freedom fighters laid down their lives for. Besides, you cannot lay the foundations of a new India by pulling down its very roots.
India-China relations: The dangers ahead
While a war between China and India doesn’t look imminent, if war were to break out between the US and China over Taiwan, misunderstandings on the China-India frontier would rise, and pressure on India from the United States and other Quad allies would be intense.
The world, especially the West, is fearful of what Vladimir Putin will do next and any added fallout from the spreading Ukraine war. Then, there has been China prowling Taiwan’s defense zone with major exercises with live ammunition and missiles. However, could there be worse dangers elsewhere risking war and even global Armageddon? Try China going to war with India given a history of tensions between the two, including a border clash, last year. A serious collision of such nuclear powers could prove earth shattering.
Indeed, let us look at important recent statements, including from the Chinese leadership. Outlook India wrote of “Chinese President Xi Jinping’s exhortation to the military to “comprehensively strengthen the training of troops and prepare for war”. This is worrying. The same article by Saibal Dasupta adds that “Xi’s statement comes at a time when troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China have intruded 3-4 km into Indian territory in Ladakh.” Combine this with China’s encircling of Taiwan with major military maneuvers around the visit to Taipei, of Nancy Pelosi, second in line to the US president. China seems much more sensitive and assertive these days to backing its positions on territorial disputes, including with its military.
On the Indian side, the reaction by the government to the Chinese incursion last year and the resulting death of 20 Indian soldiers has been seemingly controlled. No belligerent statements have been declared by New Delhi on this, at least publicly and for now. But for the Indians, their actions may speak louder. According to CNN, “The United States is to take part in a joint military exercise with India less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the South Asian country’s disputed border with China.”
Furthermore, the Modi government had already participated in 2017 in a revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad. As well, in 2021 joint patrols with Quad allies of Australia, Japan and the US were conducted with India’s navy. New Delhi has clearly not been standing still as Beijing expands its territorial claims in the South China Sea and beyond or in reaction over years to repeated Chinese incursions or “questionable” nearby activities into or near the territories of India or under claim of India. Further, Beijing shows more willingness to take stronger actions to encourage Taiwan’s full integration. So, in such contexts are India’s policies simply defensive to its giant neighbour?
Let us, however, look at Beijing’s perspective. I do this consistent with the concept put forward by Robert McNamara in the documentary, The Fog of War. McNamara, former US defense secretary, reflected in his retirement years about the need in war (or to prevent it) to have a certain degree of empathy for the enemy. After all, China feels evermore an existential threat from the West to its way of life and existence including the dominant position of the leading party, the CCP and its leadership. It watched with horror what played out in places like Ukraine, Iraq, Libya and Syria. And it watched its Marxist sister state, the Soviet Union disintegrate with added chaos from US neo-cons’ attempts to turn Russia into some parallel western model. China feels it is on the defensive to what it describes as the US- led hegemony.
While war between China and India does not look imminent, think about this. If war were to break out between the US and China over let us say Taiwan where would that leave India? As a member of the Quad security alliance and given its defensive worries about China, the pressure from the US and its other Quad allies would be intense. Misunderstandings on the China-India frontier would be at greater risk. Certain elements in the West among neo-libs or neocons might try to aggravate tensions between Beijing and New Delhi. With a conflict in the Taiwan Straits, Washington might wish to split Beijing’s focus to two fronts including the Indian-China border. After all, in the seas around it, China would likely have a superior military advantage against the US.
So, what to do? First, consider China and India have huge and fast-growing militaries. Both have many nuclear warheads, though China has twice as many, as reported by the Times of India. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported India as having the third highest military spending in the world. India is therefore no slouch militarily and if significantly or fully unleashed on China, would be highly destructive to Beijing. Strategic experts in Washington fully understand this. Do they think India, like Ukraine, would be another useful proxy to wear down another major rival? And such a clash would also stunt India from becoming too powerful for Washington and its allies, especially in its region.
Instead, India should provide signals that it is not going to be drawn into being used like Ukraine as a proxy battle ground for major powers. This means it should not engage beyond the October exercise of joint training with the US on the subcontinent. That is if it cannot cancel them. It should leave the Quad but if it cannot, then qualify its involvement by restricting its military presence to the Indian Ocean, and south of the latitude of the territorial waters off China’s Hainan Island. It should make it clear it will not get involved in the mainland-Taiwan dispute and strongly reiterate the pro-One China policy.
On the other side, China should show much more restraint of its military operations near the Indian border and even on road and other nearby developments. It should make more efforts to expand trade with India which has China as one of its top trade partners. A yuan-rupee exchange facility might be set up to further help India deal with the worsening exchange rate of the rupee against the US dollar. The two must also remember that they both have huge pockets of poverty or low-income individuals, so the imperative for peace is even more important to keep the steady economic expansion for both.
India and China suffered colonialism and neo-imperialism from the West and should be sharing more ideas consistent to South-to-South resuscitation than mutual, unnecessary battering to the bottom. Therefore, both have many reasons to avoid getting entangled or trapped into a war with each other. Can that be said of certain interests in the West and elsewhere? Washington and NATO should restrain themselves at looking at such an outcome of rapprochement between Beijing and New Delhi in zero-sum terms. The world would be better off and surely India and China would be to work concretely harder for mutual peace and development.
Peter Dash is an educator based in Southeast Asia. He has written for many publications and was a researcher at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.
The fault, dear Bollywood, is not in our stars, but in our content
The performance at the box office of both Aamir Khan’s Laal Singh Chaddha and Akshay Kumar’s Raksha Bandhan has been underwhelming to say the least. Producers, distributors, actors, cinema owners, everyone connected to the film industry in one way or the other are lamenting the successive box office failures of Bollywood productions. Star power seems not to matter anymore. A little while ago Ranveer Singh’s Jayeshbhai Zordar, Ranbir Kapoor’s Shamshera, and even Tiger Shroff’s Heropanti all fell by the wayside.
If you stop to think of it though, in a way, this could be a long overdue and very good lesson for the film industry because it must learn that in order to survive it has perforce to improve its content and not rely unduly on star power. Content in cinema includes choreography, screenplay, dialogue, direction, editing, proper casting and many other things, but what really matters can perhaps be summed up in one word: storytelling.
Nasiruddin Shah’s wife, the actor Ratna Pathak spoke last month, in an interview published in the Hindustan Times about the star system as it had existed in the seventies. According to her it was an obnoxious system ‘where the content of films was driven by the star involved and not by the idea of telling a story.’ She also spoke of how many stars were poor performers but were nonetheless cruising along. In an earlier era, directors like Bimal Roy and Mehboob Khan had held sway who saw a movie star as the carrier of a story and not the other way around.
Now we see the star system crumbling, slowly but surely. Actor Salman Khan also interviewed recently stated that he had been hearing talk about the collapse of the star system for decades now, but it wasn’t something that was going to happen. Stars, he maintained, would always exist. That may be so, but they will hereafter no longer command the kind of position in cinema that they have commanded till now. Some sort of balance will need to be restored if Bollywood is to survive. In Salman’s own case his inclusion in a film by no means guarantees box office success. In fact, his films have bombed time and again the most recent one being the unwatchable Dabangg 3.
In terms of timing, it is perhaps no coincidence that the actor Ranveer Singh decided to take off all his clothes and do a shoot in the nude last month. He went the Full Monty and although those pictures were not put on social media as they would offend censorship guidelines, apparently the fully nude pictures were circulating on WhatsApp.
When you reach a certain kind of stardom, it is easy enough to get people to endorse whatever you do. Praise came from various quarters about how Ranveer is entitled to do whatever it is he wishes to do as part of his creative self-expression. Wife Deepika Padukone too approved his decision, as his spouse and possibly also in the light of her own revealing performance in her latest film Gehrayian.
The fact that he has done a shoot in the nude now, and not some other time, may have something to do with the fact that his most recent film Jayesh Bhai Jordar went phuss at the box office. So Ranveer, tossing and turning from the snide remarks and taunts that would have inevitably followed, needed to do something to erase public memory of that flop and replace it with something else more noteworthy. A nude photo-shoot may have, to him, appeared to be the simplest and easiest thing to do.
Why was this lesson not taught to Bollywood earlier? One way of analysing this is to say that all of us in India need an entertainment fix once a week and till a few years ago there was no alternative to the big screen. Marx said famously that religion was the opium of the masses, which may well be true, but in India cinema also qualified as an alternative escape from the humdrum monotony of daily life. Everyone in the world knows of India’s obsession with cricket and the movies.
There was television of course, but it wasn’t really such an immersive experience and moreover most serials targeted the housewife with ‘saas bahu’ conflicts, not such an engaging subject matter for a male audience. What changed over the past few years, especially after corona, was the arrival of the OTT platform with its numerous web series, docudramas and cinema made for exclusive release on Netfix, Sony Liv, Zee 5, Voot or some such channel.
As a consequence, the cinema watching audience became more discerning and more demanding. It took the star struck Indian audience some time to get used to better content, but once that happened it wasn’t so easy to lure them back to the cinema halls. For one thing it would take an hour to drive to the movie hall in the traffic and sometimes as much time to find parking. A middle-class man realises that quite apart from spending money on movie tickets, he may need to spend over a thousand rupees on snacks such as popcorn, nachos, burgers what have you, for himself and his family. No, if it wasn’t good cinema, it was better to stay at home, watch the cricket or a Netflix series or film and get the wife or cook to rustle up some fritters or pakoras. What’s not to like there?
Will Bollywood change? Can Bollywood change? No question, it can and it will. Money talks as nothing else can. Star power itself was built on the making of money, and that power will lessen and dissipate once it is clear, as it should be, by now, that star power alone cannot make a movie succeed at the box office anymore. The times, they are a changing, as Bob Dylan sang.
Rajesh Talwar is the author of 34 books across multiple genres. He has worked for the United Nations for over two decades across three continents in numerous countries.
A LONG ROAD AHEAD FOR CONGRESS BEFORE 2024
The All India Congress has been aggressively pursuing its agenda against the Centre particularly on price rise. The party has been staging protests on the issue at the block level. There is a scheduled national-level rally on the issue on 28 August. Protesting against price rise is fine since the issue is of concern to the common man. But the big question is would the Congress be able to effectively use the issue against the Modi government.
Congress has raised such issues earlier too, but it has failed to take its campaigns on those issues to a logical conclusion. In not too distant a past, for instance, the party staged protests across many states against the three farm laws, which now stand repealed. In fact, it was the Congress which began protests against the farm laws, with Rahul Gandhi hitting the streets. However, the party lost the plot and the movement was hijacked and party found itself sidelined.
Now coming back to the price rise, the Congress has not raised the issue the first time. Eight months back, the party organised a national-level rally at Jaipur on 12 December 2021. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot put in all efforts to make the rally a success. If the huge crowds the rally drew were any yardstick, the rally was undoubtedly successful. Addressing the rally, Rahul Gandhi slammed the BJP saying that he was a Hindu but not a Hindutvavadi. His comments put the party in a tight spot as the BJP launched an all-out offensive on Hindutva, relegating the issue of inflation to irrelevance. The Saffron brigade won assembly elections in four states hands down. The party has once again made inflation a major issue to corner the BJP government at the centre. But nobody can deny the fact that Congress raked the issue, perforce, again to deflect the attention from the investigation in the National Herald money laundering case by the Enforcement Directorate (ED), in which the ED had summoned both Rahul Gandhi and Sonia for interrogation. The Congress staged country-wide protests against the ED interrogating the Gandhis. However, the party realised that it may boomerang on it, as the BJP retaliated by attacking the party on parivarvad (familial nepotism) and corruption. The party, however, managed to deflect the criticism by invoking issues like price rise and unemployment and putting them on its agenda in a forceful manner.
By bringing issues of nepotism and corruption back in public discourse in his Independence Day address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already set the agenda without naming the Gandhi family. It is clear that the BJP would once again take on the Opposition on these twin planks in coming elections. It is also clear from what Modi said that whosoever is involved in corruption will have to face the consequences. This stance may be worrisome not only for the Congress but also for leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Tejaswi Yadav, for nobody knows when the ED would come knocking on their doors.
But there is a silver lining for the Congress. It has been able to put pressure on the BJP government on an issue like inflation, which affects the commoners like nothing. The Congress was also able to put up a united front while staging protests against price rise and unemployment. The Gandhis hit the streets to lead party workers and leaders from the front. Encouraged by the response it has got from workers across the states, the party has drawn an ambitious plan to reach out to the people. The party will begin its “Bharat Jodo Yatra” on 7 September the success of which will depend on the support it receives from the common people. But if the party keeps pressing the issues it has been championing in recent times it is bound to find popular support among the masses, which may help catapult the Congress to become a force to reckon with in 2024.
Nitish’s move lacks credibility
Many have tried to depict Nitish Kumar’s as a result of the BJP’s alleged attempts to divide the Janata Dal United (JDU). But this is far from the truth. Nitish was guided by his own vaulting ambition to take a final shot at the top slot-the Prime Minister of India.
Nitish Kumar’s move to jettison trusted ally, the BJP, and align with forces he till recently considered inimical to the interest of Bihar, shows the new low in political gerrymandering. He has demonstrated to one and all that he cannot be trusted with words and his self-interest would govern his actions.
His opportunistic swing between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) reminds one of the hilarious Aaaya Ram Gaya Ram phenomenon that happened in 1960s and showed how personal interest guides political moves. Nitish is being described by many as ‘Paltu Ram’ of Indian politics which refers to a person known for changing sides without the slightest of moral compunctions.
At the first assembly election in Haryana in 1967, Gaya Ram had won as an independent candidate. Immediately after the results were out, he joined the Congress but within few hours he joined the United Front. The same day by the evening, he rejoined the Congress. Within nine hours he shifted loyalty thrice. Congress leader Rao Birendra Singh while addressing the media said, “Gaya Ram Ab Aaya Ram hai”.
Ever since then, frequent shift of political loyalty had become a joke for those who could not be trusted. The anti-defection law that seeks to prevent political defections is silent on the situation created by Nitish Kumar. This sobriquet of Paltu Ram for Nitish Kumar was given by none other than Lalu Prasad Yadav when Kumar walked out of the JDU-RJD alliance in 2017 on the issue of corruption by RJD leaders, particularly Tejashwi Yadav. “He has neither principles nor ideology but only greed for power”, Prasad had said.
Both the BJP and the JDU had contested elections in alliance in 2020 and Nitish became chief minister even when he had much fewer seats (43) than the BJP that had won 74 assembly seats. He has sunk and the alliance and joined forces with adversaries- the RJD and others. This cannot by any stretch of imagination be described as something that people of the State would want. People know that the mandate for the NDA was largely due to image and massive campaign by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the personal guarantee he gave about Bihar witnessing unprecedented development under double Engine NDA Government.
Many critics and analysts have tried to depict Kumar’s exit from the NDA as a result of the BJP’s alleged attempts to divide the Janata Dal United (JDU) or create trouble for the chief minister. But these are far from the truth. Nitish was guided by his own vaulting ambition to play a larger role in Indian politics and to take a final shot at the top slot- the Prime Minister of India in 2024.
One should not forget that he had similar ambition in 2013. On 16 June he had snapped ties with the BJP when the party made Narendra Modi its campaign chief for 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Nitish had given the most venomous statement when Modi was subsequently named the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. “People of the country will not tolerate or accept a leader whose idea and policy is divisive” Kumar had said.
At the back of his mind somewhere, Kumar may have imagined that the BJP wound not get a majority and a hung parliament could throw up a possibility of someone else (read Nitish) to become the Prime Minister. If wishes had wings horses could fly. The entire country witnessed Modi’s personal charisma and trust translate into massive majority for the BJP. Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014.
This happens if one stays on one post (here chief minister) for a long time and is unable to do much for development of the State. You cannot blame others if the State has failed to catch up with other more developed States of India. With nothing challenging to do, one gets bored and starts looking for a new role. This is more so when you are on the wrong side of age. He will be 73 when the country would witness Lok Sabha elections.
Anyone in Nitish Kumar’s situation would sense a great opportunity since the Congress is in disarray and regional leaders such as Ms Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, or other players such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader, Sharad Pawar or other leaders are not taken seriously as a national player. Nitish Kumar who has won his image of ‘Sushashan Babu’ in alliance with the BJP may rake up Bihari pride to try to win most of the 40 Lok Sabha seats of the State.
Till now Nitish Kumar’s political moves in Bihar have paid dividends to him at the personal level. He has dumped allies with impunity and has retained his chief minister’s chair. But to try to judge Kumar from the prism of political morality would be wrong. He has created his own morality which is wherever he goes is the winning side and whatever justification he gives is the new morality in politically polarised Bihar.
Thus far so good, but no further. Nitish has played his last gamble. He has dumped a trusted partner that did not stake claim to the chief minister’s post despite winning more seats than the JDU. If Nitish had any sense of political morality he would not have become the chief minister and asked the BJP to nominate its own candidate. This is greatness of Modi that he forgot the personal angst of Kumar against him and supported his cause when he left the RJD alliance in 2017 on the issue of corruption and later when the JDU got less number of seats in 2020.
There are some who say that the BJP asked Lok Janshakti Party chief Chirag Paswan to field candidates against the JDU to give the BJP a decisive edge. While the results may be true, it is a far-fetched conclusion that there was any such understanding between the two parties. The BJP did not share dais or any political platform with Chirag Paswan and even after he lost the polls in Bihar, he was not accommodated in the NDA government at the Centre. Kumar should look at his own reasons to know why Chirag opposed him so bitterly. The BJP did not change tack and stuck to its commitment that Nitish Kumar would be the chief minister.
Some critics often compare the situation with Maharashtra and argue that Nitish feared that the BJP would engineer the fall of his government. This is ridiculous. In Maharashtra the mandate in 2019 was for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance to form the Government. The alliance had won 161 assembly seats in a house of 288 of which the BJP had won on 105 seats, the Shiv Sena on 56. Other seats were won by the National Congress Party (54) and the Congress (44). If people’s verdict was to be honoured Devendra Fadnavis should have become the chief minister.
But Shiv Sena ditched the mandate and refused to be in the alliance unless it was given the post of the chief minister. After a long stalemate, the Shiv Sena formed an alliance government with the NCP and the Congress. The BJP called it betrayal of the mandate but could not do anything. Later, many Shiv Sainiks realized the folly of the decision and they took command of the Shiv Sena and came back to the BJP. The BJP’s decision to keep the alliance was obvious when it gave the chief minister’s post to Eknath Shinde and asked Fadnavis to become the Deputy. There was nothing unethical in it. The original mandate was for this alliance and political opportunists had made an unholy alliance that lacked ideological coherence. So far as Shinde is concerned, the Shiv Sena would decide who is their leader and not the BJP.
One can argue why the BJP supported Nitish Kumar when it split with partners with whom it had contested polls in alliance. The case of Bihar is completely different. Nitish came to be known as ‘Sushashan Babu’ in the company of the BJP. The vote in 2015 was largely in the name of Nitish Kumar and his image even when he contested against the BJP. So when he decided to part ways with the RJD on the issue of corruption, the BJP had few choices than to support him in the name of stability and good governance.
The present move of Nitish is not backed by sound logic. The BJP leadership was in touch with him and he had apparently given assurance that everything was all right. The BJP could not have disturbed its own government. Nitish had complete backing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. There was no justification and no provocation. If you reject the possibilities, the only possible reason is Kumar’s ambition to take a shot at the top job by exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition.
Besides the fact that Modi is going to be there for a long time to come and that he is the most popular leader in the country, Kumar has been exposed badly. The RJD has no love lost for him and when their parting had taken place in 2017 it had turned bitter with all members of Lalu Prasad’s family abusing Kumar for back-stabbing the RJD.
The Machiavellian brand of politics that Kumar has specialized makes strange bedfellows. Enemies become friends and friends become enemies with both showing that they are ready to forget the past and keen to rewrite a new future but none forgets. One point of time, the RJD was symbolic of the jungle raj in Bihar. It is clear that Kumar is no longer worried about people of Bihar. People would be scared of this alliance and may not bite the dust.
So far as the BJP is concerned, it has got a golden opportunity to strengthen its organisation and go to the people for a full mandate. This is likely to bring new energy to the party that has been working tirelessly to give representation to all sections of the society. This is a redefining moment for Bihar politics.
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