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The Twin Towers

 

Can Mulayam and Nitish Stop The Modi Juggernaut? Plus: the Other Five Who Hold The Keys to Delhi
TSI | Issue Dated: November 24, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Lok Sabha | UP | Bihar | Mulayam | Nitish | Mamta | Naveen | Jagan | Mayawati | Jayalalitha |
 

When empires start crumbling, it is peripheral fiefdoms paying reluctant tribute that become the last bastions of crumbling loyalty.  Now that history lessons have become intimately associated with the Narendra Modi campaign, it might just help to go through a quick fire tour of history that could be of relevance to Modi and his rivals.

 

When the Mughal dynasty started crumbling, fiefdoms in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar became virtually independent entities, paying nominal tribute to the Mughals. It was only when the British gained control of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that they could finally put an end to the Mughal dynasty. The British came from the West. Many hundred years later, when the Gandhi dynasty started crumbling, it lost direct control over Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Yet, the Gandhis, like the Mughals, managed to retain their tenuous hold over Delhi thanks to reluctant support from regional chieftains in Bihar and UP. Now that another disruptive force in the form of Narendra Modi aims to end the Gandhi dynasty and capture the Red Fort, it is the regional chieftains who are the last bastions of crumbling loyalty.

 

In less facile historical terms and more direct contemporary terms, it is not the Gandhis who can stop the Modi juggernaut from rolling on to Delhi. Like the Mughals of yore, they simply do not have the firepower to fight a decisive war in the Indo-Gangetic plains. They are hopelessly dependent on two regional chieftains in the form of Mulayam Singh Yadav and Nitish Kumar. The two stand like the Twin Towers of Secularism between Modi and the Red Fort.  If Mulayam and Nitish do well, the Modi challenge will fizzle out in 2014. And the Gandhi dynasty will probably get a breather. And maybe some more time to try and reverse its terminal decline. However, if Mulayam and Nitish falter and lose to Modi, the Gandhis will surely lose the Red Fort. If you are a history buff, you could well be tempted to christen the imminent conflict between Modi and the combined forces of Nitish, Mulayam and the Gandhis as the Second Battle of Buxar. In the first battle in 1764, British forces routed a combined front of the Nawab of Bengal and Bihar Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Awadh (UP) Shuja-Dullah and the nominal Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. That battle was fought 130 kilometers away from Patna on the banks of the river Ganga. Come 2014, and India will witness another decisive battle, this time decoded by the ballot box. Of course, hyper active and hyper aggressive Modi fans would love the parallels between the trio of Mir Qasim, Shuja-Dullah & Shah Alam and Nitish, Mulayam and Rahul Gandhi. But frankly, even astrologers would shy away from predicting the outcome of the Second Battle of Buxar circa 2014. All we can hope for is rollicking good entertainment even as the gladiators and their battles decide the destiny of India for the foreseeable future.

 

You might well ask: Why are the Twin Towers of Secularism Nitish and Mulayam so important? After all, there other regional chieftains like Mamta Bannerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Mayawati, YSR Jagan Reddy and Jayalalitha who could well stop Modi in his tracks if they desire to do so. As analyzed in the related story right after this feature, these five chieftains will probably control 120 odd seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha. And none of them have professed any love for Modi. Yet, Mulayam and Nitish matter for a few reasons. First, the two are in charge of two states that send 120 members to the Lok Sabha. Second, Modi's dreams of capturing the Red Fort depend critically on his ability to win a large number of seats in Bihar and UP. Third, though nothing is impossible in politics, it is very difficult to imagine Mulayam and Nitish allying in any way with Modi after the 2014 verdict, while it is quite possible for the other five chieftains to come to some kind of understanding with Modi if he wins enough seats in 2014. They probably hate this predicament: but Mulayam and Nitish will sink with Rahul in 2014 if all the breathless talk of a Modi wave in Bihar and UP turns out to be true. In sharp contrast, the other five – Mamta, Naveen, Jagan, Mayawati and Jayalalitha- will have enough power and Lok Sabha MPs to strike hard bargains with Modi. That's why Nitish and Mulayam are important. And that's why 2014 is important for both of them.

 

In contemporary politics, the role played by Mulayam and Nitish is fascinating indeed. The duo symbolize how far politics has changed in the country and how parties and leaders have been compelled by circumstances to change their fundamental thinking. Both Mulayam and Nitish owe their emergence and early success to a revolt against the arrogant and apathetic monopoly exercised by the Congress. Today, like it or not, their fortunes are inextricably tied up with Congress. Then again, like it or not, the two have become hard line practitioners of a brand of secularism that is unique to India. Both Nitish and Mulayam are laying claim to that unproven and a used entity called the Muslim vote bank. Their very survival in 2014 depends on their ability to convince Muslim voters in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that they are the sole guarantors of Muslim security, rights and future prosperity. While Mulayam is a battle scarred veteran of secular wars, Nitish is the proverbial born again secular, having only recently shredded ties with the ‘communal’ BJP after 17 long years of mutually beneficial partnership. Like any born again, Nitish seems extra eager to flaunt his new found faith.

 

The big question is: can they stop Modi? A brief journey through the checkered careers of Mulayam and Nitish might provide some answers.

 

Mulayam Singh Yadav is probably the last devotee and follower of Ram Manohar Lohia, the socialist who originally dreamt of a Congress free India. The first politician who made a serious attempt in the Hindi heartland to translate Lohia's dreams into reality was the late Charan Singh. He was the first 'farmer' politician to successfully challenge the Congress monopoly in Uttar Pradesh. Ironically, though, it was only with the help and support of the Congress that Charan Singh was able to fulfill his dream of becoming Prime Minister. Mulayam Singh Yadav emerged as one of the key lieutenants of Charan Singh. By the time the Bofors scam became a hot button electoral issue in the late 1980s, there were two contestants to the Charan Singh legacy in Uttar Pradesh- his son Ajit Singh and Mulayam. The 1989 elections saw the Congress being soundly defeated in Uttar Pradesh and Mulayam defeated dynasty politics and Ajit Singh and emerged as the Chief Minister of UP. His tenure was brief but historic. It saw the entry of Mandal and Mandir politics with a vengeance in the state. Being a smart politician, Mulayam was able to take advantage of both. Mandal ensured that Mulayam successfully captured the Yadav and the other backward caste vote banks. More significantly, when he was Chief Minister in 1990, the police opened fire and killed dozens of Hindutva activists who had gathered in Ayodhya to support the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. As far as Hindutva activists and BJP supporters were concerned, he promptly became Maulana Mulayam. But for Muslims in Uttar Pradesh who felt terribly insecure because of the Ram Mandir movement, Mulayam became a de facto messiah. 'Netaji' was virtually guaranteed the support of Muslim voters of Uttar Pradesh for almost two decades till 2009. In 2009, Mulayam, eager to expand his political footprint flirted with former BJP leader Kalyan Singh who was chief minister of UP when the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992. This infuriated Muslim voters and many ended up voting for Mayawati and the Congress. One of the top Muslim leaders of his party Azam Khan left Mulayam. Chastened by that experience, Mulayam has once again become secular with a vengeance. He wooed Muslims assiduously, lured back leaders like Azam Khan and swept to power in the 2012 assembly elections. In a typically Indian twist of irony, the man who had protested against dynastic politics when Ajit Singh tried to take over the mantle of his father Charan Singh, has foisted his own son Akhilesh Yadav as the chief minister. Even more ironically, the complete failure of his son to stop communal riots in UP since 2012 – more than 80 communal incidents have been reported since Akhilesh Yadav became chief minister – has badly dented his secular credentials. Mulayam has been providing support to the Congress led UPA government since 2004 and continues to support the regime even though erstwhile allies like Mamta and Karunanidhi of DMK have left the alliance. Reports from the state suggest that Mulayam faces a formidable challenge now as Muslim voters are enraged with him after the Muzzafarnagar riots. No matter what happens, Mayawati and her party BSP will retain their core vote bank and it is certain that the arrival of Modi has energized the dormant and disheartened Hindutva cadres. The biggest fear confronting Mulayam and also Rahul Gandhi is the prospect of Modi and Mayawati carving up the votes between them.

 

While Mulayam has been a proven secular warrior with a track record to boast of, Nitish Kumar does not have the luxury of such an impeccable pedigree. Around the time Mulayam and Ajit Singh became rivals in UP in the post Congress era, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar – both followers of Jay Prakash Narain and both die hard opponents of the Congress – dreamt of ruling Bihar. The early battles were decisively won by the charismatic Lalu Prasad Yadav who became the chief minister while Nitish had to be content with a ministerial portfolio in the Lalu cabinet. In 1990, Lalu became the champion of Muslims in Bihar when he arrested L.K Advani who was on a Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra in support of the Ram Mandir. This one act ensured the loyalty of Muslim voters for almost two decades till the 2010 assembly elections when they switched support to a better model of governance provided by Nitish-BJP alliance. Back in the 1990s, Nitish revolted against Lalu and formed his own party. But he was no match for the charisma of Lalu and needed the alliance with the BJP to remain a force to reckon with. Both Nitish and the BJP were marginal players in the hey days of Lalu and it was the poor governance of Lalu that enabled both to expand their social and political base. In 2013, Nitish got an opportunity to do what Lalu had done in 1990 – lay claim to Muslim votes. His big gamble has been to sever all ties with the BJP and convince Muslims that his hostility towards Modi makes him a better bet than Lalu. But unlike Mulayam, who has a safe Yadav vote bank, Nitish has no such cushion. To that extent, he is now even more critically dependent on Muslim voters switching en masse towards his party. To complicate matters, the five year jail sentence given to Lalu Yadav in the fodder scam case could well swing many sympathy votes towards Lalu and his party. The real dilemma for Nitish is a possible alliance with Congress. Who knows, this once die hard opponent of the Congress – like Mulayam – might just end up doing a deal of convenience with the Congress.

 

As we approach the Second Battle of Buxar, the action promises to be riveting and decisive. The two regional chieftains will decide the future course of Indian politics. Remember,  Vajpayee as Prime Minister did not pose an existential threat to the Gandhi dynasty and the ‘secula’ Establishment that nurtures and supports it. A victorious Modi will be an entirely different ball game.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017