The script for the current standoff between the BJP and old ally, the JD(U) was written over a hot summer weekend three years ago. The occasion was BJP National Executive in Patna on June 12-13, 2010. That was the first time Nitish Kumar made an open display of what was to become his hate-hate relationship with Narendra Modi.
It was thus no surprise that even before Nitish Kumar set his foot in Delhi for his party’s two-day national conclave in New Delhi, it was cleverly leaked in the media that his party would put an official stamp of his negation of ‘Modi for PM’ idea and set a deadline to the BJP leadership to declare its Prime Ministerial candidate. He had set the agenda for the weekend, April 13-14. Since Nitish’s offensive came as a follow-up to Modi’s extended outings, which incidentally began on the previous weekend from Ahmedabad, then to Delhi and Kolkata where the Gujarat Chief Minister had taken position of a shadow Prime Minister, it was certain to change the political discourse from Modi versus Rahul to Modi versus Nitish, at least for now.
Nitish Kumar was clearly playing an aggressor to the BJP but did not want the tag of an unreliable political deserter but wanted to play the victim and don halo of a martyr who lost fighting for a cause, of protecting secularism, unity of a diverse multi-lingual, multi-religious pluralistic society of the nation. His concluding punch line at his party’s conclave—Jindgi Kya Hai Maut Ki Amanat Hai, summed it all. But a closer look at his speech and politics reveal that he is not aiming for martyrdom but only want to have its halo so that he could deeply cut into the social base of his erstwhile friend-turned-political rival, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and be the sole claimant of Muslim votes in Bihar–ironically, only by following in Lalu’s footsteps, packaging and marketing it in a better way. But then he is experimenting with that formula over two decades later than its original exponent.
While talking of life and death and uncertainty thy name life, the Bihar Chief Minister seemed to be inspired by the song sequence of Mukaddar Ka Sikandar, where a dashing Vinod Khanna roams on a bike singing Jindgi to bewafa hai ek din thukraigi, Maut mehbooba hai apne saath lekar jayegi…Nitish spoke of his own philosophy to suggest that he was prepared for the worse, if he were to part ways with the BJP and number game could become precarious in the state assembly for him to continue for next three years. Incidentally, it was not Vinod Khanna who died Mukaddar Ka Sikandar but it was Amitabh Bachchan, who watched him perplexed singing that song, who died in climax scene. Nitish could also be playing a real life political Bazigar, what Shahrukh Khan played in reel life, wining a new fan following and stardom for the future.
It is also a great coincidence that Nitish did not speak of a single sentence against the incumbent UPA regime, not even a word on Congress and his philosophical Jindgi Kya Hai Maut Ki Amanat Hai came in context of a no-holds-barred criticism of a leader who Congress President Sonia Gandhi had once famously described as Maut Ka Saudagar. Whether there is a meeting of minds or whether there will be a meeting of minds between Nitish and Congress chief, still early to say but that possibility looms large on the horizon. The Congress is actively pursuing that. Last week Nitish had found sweetness of honey in Rahul Gandhi’s beehive comparison of India when Modi had found it to be too demeaning to call Bharat Mata a Madhumakhi Ka Chhatta. Clearly, a wily politician in Nitish is working on more than one option not just to survive but hope to live with greater glory.
Where does that place the BJP when its ally for 17 years starts dictating term even as it makes an unconcealed move towards the exit gate? After a long time, the BJP rank and file was filled with a certain enthusiasm and that was clearly manifested in party’s last month’s national council and executive meeting. They had been seeing in Modi, strength of the leader who had capacity and charisma to drive the Congress out from the seat of power in Delhi. Within hours of Nitish frontal charge against the BJP’s most popular leader, its spokesperson Nirmala Sitaraman came out to well-crafted, crisp caution to Janata Dal (U): “The need of the hour is to defeat the non-performing and corrupt UPA. The Congress-led UPA government is leading this country on a downslide in every field. The BJP expects opposition parties and allies to keep their main focus on that. However, it is unfortunate, if they concentrate their energies on our Chief Ministers and dilute the focus on removing the UPA. The BJP will continue its determined efforts in this direction. We reject all unfounded inferences against Shri Narendra Modi.” A day later, a group of Bihar BJP leaders including Giriraj Singh and Ashwini Chaubey, ministers in Nitish government, met party president Rajnath Singh to convey their sense of anger against Nitish. They termed Nitish’s speech humiliating to the BJP. But Rajnath, the party head, maintained his cool.
That was designed to convey a message to the JD(U) leader that the BJP would not take it lying down. More so, because Nitish had indulged in unadulterated Modi-bashing after a supposedly cordial meeting with two top BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley. The fact that the JD(U) president and NDA convener Sharad Yadav was much more balanced in his speech, stressing the need to carry on the alliance. In a surcharged atmosphere, things went awry when another newly appointed BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi took to the podium at party headquarters, 11 Ashoka Road, for afternoon briefing later in the day, reminding Nitish of tenure as Rail Minister in NDA government when Godhra incident took place and dismissing Nitish as someone whose certificate was not required by the BJP. Nitish was bound to retort to that, making the divorce look more imminent than ever.
While a section is rooting for a retaliatory action by the BJP and is of the view that it would not stand to lose in Bihar if it bid goodbye to the JD(U), other leaders including some influential senior leaders are not inclined to precipitate tension further, particularly when JD(U) has given time till December to chose their Prime Ministerial candidate. The BJP’s internal dynamics are also coming to play and there is a view that is gaining ground that party should make no hurry in declaring its PM challenger and should take a call only after the poll results are out. Akali Dal leader Naresh Gujaral is openly advocating this line.
But then the catch is Nitish could raise his bargain further, not allowing Modi to campaign in Bihar, just as he did in assembly polls. The BJP would then be placed in an awkward position. Will the BJP then call the bluff? Many believe in Nitish’s own party, JD(U) and outside he is playing a calculated gamble. A section in the JD(U) is convinced that the upper castes disenchantment with Nitish Kumar has become complete and even if the JD(U) and the BJP were to together to the polls, the Rajputs, Bhumihar, Brahmins and Kayasthas were unlikely to vote for the JD(U). These upper castes form solid social support base for the BJP. So if he were to lose support of these castes, he should compensate or actually gain with an aggressive hostile voting against the BJP by the Muslim community if JD(U) splits with the BJP while trying to stop onward national march of Narendra Modi. As against 13 per cent of upper castes, Muslims constitute 15 per cent of total electorate in the state.
In Nitish’s own words, “I don’t want to lose that (Muslim) support.” His other message was that he or his party JD(U) would like to play a much bigger role in the national politics. That’s a fair aspiration of any leader who many among the liberals believe could become Prime Minister and keep on hammering that aspiration to him.
The question is why is Nitish taking all this to an emotive pitch? The answer lies in argument that there is a definite downslide in his popularity chart in the state and as compared to his first term the gap between popular expectations and delivery on the ground is widening by the day in his second term and thus he is trying to make his support base more emotive than aspirational. His second term came through a historic positive mandate where he was voted in with over three-fourth majority. Given the backwardness of the state, a mismatch of expectation and reality was inbuilt in that system. So whether it was campaign for special status for Bihar, a most difficult thing to achieve since the NDC (National Development Council) has to have a consensus on the subject and then anti-Modi positioning, Nitish is trying to fight it out against a real or perceived villain, taking the popular attention off from the issues that a voter could have asked answers from him next time he went seeking votes.
His topi and tilak reference for potential PM, “jise topi bhi pehanana padega aur tika bhi lagana hoga”, was meant to create a villain out of Modi who had refused to wear a skull cap during Sadbhavana Yatra. But topi has too many connotations in Hindi and as some say Nitish has some good experience in topi pehnane ka khel. One has to look into the history of Janata Dal and how he was paying back BJP’s unflinching support to him for last 17 years.
By Deepak Kumar Rath