India's Modi On Course for Reelection After Bihar BJP Coup

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant site.

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have won yet another victory in their drive for the pan-India political domination of their Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party with a coup in the desperately poor state of Bihar, where Nitish Kumar, the chief minister and head of a regional party, dramatically resigned last night.

In a carefully orchestrated series of events spanning just 15 hours, Kumar was sworn in again this morning as chief minister at the head of a new coalition government in partnership with the BJP instead of a former dynasty-dominated and corrupt partner that lost its government role last night.

Coming four months after the BJP swept to power in Uttar Pradesh and three other states, the coup upsets and probably demolishes the dreams of the Congress and regional parties to mount some form of effective joint opposition against the BJP for the 2019 general election.

Bihar's chief minister and leader of Janata Dal United party Nitish Kumar in Patna, India January 8, 2012. Adnan Abidi/reuters

This makes it even more likely that Modi will win a second five-year term as prime minister, and it underlines again the political ineffectiveness of Congress's Gandhi family – Rahul, the hapless heir apparent to the party leadership, and his mother Sonia.

Today Rahul Gandhi has lamely said he had known for three months that Kumar was planning the move.

The coup also enables Modi and Shah to bury the ignominy of their crushing defeat in the state's last assembly election in November 2015, when a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) headed by Kumar, who had already been chief minister for ten years, won 178 seats in the 243-seat assembly against only 58 for the BJP's alliance.

Irrespective of the apprehensions that many in India have about the growing clout of Modi and Shah and their often-intolerant Hindu nationalist followers, Bihar has today got the government that it should have had in November 2015.

Kumar now has the BJP to help him drive economic and social development that Bihar desperately needs. He has been unable to do that with his main mahagathbandhan partner, the dynastic nepotism-ridden Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) led by Lalu Prasad Yadav, a former chief minister convicted of massive corruption, that won more seats than Kumar's Janata Dal United (JDU) in 2015.

Kumar first became chief minister in 2005 in coalition with the BJP, replacing Yadav's RJD that had been in power for 15 years and had focussed on caste empowerment instead of economic development. Yadav's uneducated wife Rabri had held the chief minister's post for nine years after corruption charges led to Yadav being banned from office, as he still is.

Kumar made rapid progress on economic and other policies including law and order. Roads were transformed, as I saw on a visit to the state during the 2015 state assembly election campaign. Electric power came for 12 hours or more a day to over 36,000 of the state's 40,000 villages, and attendance at schools improved dramatically

But in 2013 Kumar ended the alliance with the BJP because at the time he opposed the emergence of Narendra Modi as the party's Hindu nationalist prime ministerial candidate and joined up with the Yadav's JDU for the 2015 election.

By then, the state arguably needed the BJP's drive for private sector business and entrepreneurship, which Kumar had not pushed alongside his other achievements.

That is why the coming together today of Kumar's party and the BJP in the new state government could produce what the state needs, providing the focus is on economic and business development and not the BJP's more socially divisive Hinduisation. The deputy chief minister is Sushil Kumar Modi (no relation to the prime minister), who is strong on development and worked with Kumar in earlier years.

The Kumar-Yadav alliance ran into trouble soon after the 2015 election victory because of the Yadav family's long running corruption and Lalu Prasad Yadav's insistence that his totally inexperienced 26-year old younger son, Tejashwi, should became deputy chief minister.

Investment in education and health infrastructure declined, the law and order situation worsened (as was inevitable with the Yadavs in government), and Kumar's unexpected introduction of liquor prohibition diverted attention from development.

Tejashwi Yadav is accused of being involved in a land-for-hotels scandal, along with other corruption allegations involving his family, including his father and mother. Earlier this month the Central Bureau of Investigation raided the family's homes and other properties in Patna, Bihar's capital, and other cities.

This indicated that the Modi government was using CBI investigations against the Yadavs, as it has been doing elsewhere against other political opponents – in this case to encourage Kumar to split from the family.

Another course would have been for Kumar to sack Tejashwi, but that would have created an uncertain political crisis. Resigning, as he did last night with the BJP primed to step in as his ally, was a much swifter way out of the problem.

The coup however seems to mark the end of Kumar's ambition to move back into national politics (between 1998 and 2001 he was a railways and agriculture minister in a BJP-led government ) and become prime minister. But the failure of the opposition alliance to come together nationally, and the Gandhi family's failure to back his ascendancy, made that unlikely.

In Bihar, he might have found himself pushed aside by Tejashwi Yadav and his father before the next assembly polls in 2020.

Falling into the open hands of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah therefore must have seemed to Kumar to be the best option, even though he is being widely criticised for reversing his earlier split from Modi's BJP. Significantly, he backed Modi's controversial demonetisation project last November, and more recently supported the BJP's candidate for the post of India's president.

Ultimately, it is all to do with politics, not what is best for the people of Bihar, some 70 percent of whom are below the poverty line.

The good news is that Bihar now has a better government in place than it had yesterday morning.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality.