What Are You Shouting Nitish?
It seemed to be practically a case of pride versus prejudice that separated the friends, Bharatiya Janata Party and the Janata Dal (United). The BJP took pride in hailing Narendra Modi, anointing him as their principal leader of today’s era, the numero uno. The party knew of its 17-year-old alliance partner Nitish Kumar’s prejudice to him and possible consequences that could follow. It thus tried to carefully craft its Goa declaration, make Modi as campaign committee chairman not prime ministerial candidate, but there was no mistake in nomenclature either to BJP’s rank and file or to JD(U).
The two back-to-back Sundays became witness when most eventful chapters of Indian polity were scripted–first in Goa, then in Patna. If BJP workers and sympathizers danced to Namo tunes on June 9, a week later on June 16, Nitish Kumar dampened that celebratory spirit in the BJP, albeit temporarily, by dumping the BJP from the alliance in Bihar, throwing it out of power, sacking all 11 ministers from the government, including his deputy and long-time friend Sushil Kumar Modi and walking out of the opposition coalition NDA at the centre. All this was because Nitish and his company couldn’t stand to rise of a “communal” Narendra Modi to position of primacy in the BJP. The BJP’s fault was that it wilfully ignored JD(U)’s attempts to veto Modi’s elevation. Party president called his move to name Modi to the leadership position for the nation, not just of the party, justice and he could not hesitate, wait even for a moment when it concerned delivery of justice.
The message to the JD (U) was simple, the BJP would not swallow its pride due to prejudice of an alliance partner, however dear that may have been to them for all these years. The BJP was also guided by some pre-poll survey done by independent pollsters and by sympathizers that the BJP would in fact gain substantially in Bihar and JD(U) would rue its fate if both went alone in next parliamentary elections. The BJP leaders and workers didn’t mind losing power in the state, if it came at the cost of projecting Modi as their leader. They also are sure that they would soon emerge triumphant and are working on caste arithmetic.
It was in this context that former Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi said it openly, something which Modi’s key strategists had been covertly working on, Narendra Modi’s OBC credentials. Modi Jr knew the import of what he was saying. It was important for him to go all out about it for his erstwhile ally and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had been actively wooing the backward castes, particularly the most backwards. In his zeal to counter Nitish’s onward march to Raisina Hills in New Delhi, he has even negated his own accomplishments of 2010 state assembly polls, when for the first time all castes and communities barriers were broken and they all voted to BJP-JD(U) combine with a single purpose in mind, development. It was back to caste arithmetic.
Nitish had been a civil engineer by training, but he is not working overtime to somehow master the art of social engineering. Nitish’s own caste Kurmi accounts only for around 3.5 per cent of the population but he makes out on number by forging a larger umbrella coalition of extremes, upper castes, OBCs minus Yadavas, extremely backward castes, Mahadalits and Pasmanda Muslims. But with him splitting with the BJP, the social coalition of extremes would obviously crack.
It was to keep this social engineering formulation that Nitish thought prudent to follow in the footsteps of the man he professes to hate, Lalu Prasad Yadav. It’s a common knowledge that Lalu had overnight become messiah of Muslims and forged a formidable MY (Muslim-Yadav) alliance after he stopped LK Advani’s rath yatra and arrested him. Lalu ruled the state for 15 years. Nitish is trying to win over 17 per cent Muslim votes by pitching himself as principal obstruction in Modi’s advancement to national arena. That could be a risky move. His supporters say it’s a principled move, others would call it opportunism.
In 1994, Nitish split with his long-time friend and colleague Lalu Prasad Yadav, held a Kumri Chetna rally in Patna to size up his own muscle, laid foundations of Samata Party, became a disciple of veteran socialist George Fernandes and travelled to Mumbai to stitch up an alliance that his senior conceived with Advani and Vajpayee in 1995. Since then he contested all elections, assembly or parliament, in partnership with the BJP, abandoned Samata Party to a more broad-based JD(U) and moved on as one of the key regional satraps in Indian politics. This time around, he, when he parts ways with the BJP, would like the history to repeat itself for him for greater glory.
But there are two situations that aren’t the same. Lalu was a force on the decline, his attempts to propagate a counter culture of backwardness, thriving on non-development, had outlived its utility and `M’ of MY (Muslims Yadavs) getting fed up with his antics of simply keeping perpetuating a fear psychosis and nil agenda for livelihood.
Nitish has now pitted himself against Narendra Modi, a force on the rise. Modi is loved by the upper castes, which in any case have been with the BJP since the time Congress became a spent force in state politics. Nitish wants people to believe that grant of a “special category” status from the centre was the only recipe of development, Modi’s state Gujarat is already special in terms of development despite centre’s not-so-friendly attitude. Like Nitish, Modi too is an OBC leader but the latter’s OBC credentials have so far not been flaunted. But as Modi lands in Bihar in times to come, this would be widely talked through to blunt Nitish’s appeal.
In this scenario, the results of Maharajganj by-election in Bihar became important. The persona of Gujarat Chief Minister ideally should not have played a role in outcome of this by-poll. He did not go to the state, nor did he utter a word, nor was there any presence of Gujaratis in the constituency, nor were a substantive number of people from that part of Bihar working in Gujarat. But his name did play a role in this by-election, ironically in victory of the Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and loss of the JD(U) or NDA candidate.
The implication of this single by-poll, particularly because Modi factor came into play, was huge, more so when the margin of defeat for the JD(U) went up from a modest 2700 to around 1.37 lakh. The NDA voters, particularly from the backward castes, did not come out to vote for, because they saw Nitish as obstruction to another OBC, Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial prospects. A substantive section of upper caste voters including JD candidate PK Shahi’s Bhumihar caste, were annoyed with Nitish’s anti-Modi barbs and wanted to ring that warning bell and the Muslims mostly favoured RJD over the JD(U).
JD(U) leaders claim that the BJP would be living in fool’s paradise if they believed Maharajganj sample was to be replicated in the entire state. But beneath the outward bravado of the JD(U) leaders is apprehension of some of its leaders, particularly among its 20 Lok Sabha MPs that minus BJP’s support and incremental transfer of votes, their return to Parliament is not going to be easy. That is cited to be the reason why they are lacking in enthusiasm in endorsing the split with BJP, the way their Rajya Sabha counterparts like Shivanand Tiwai, KC Tyagi, Ali Anwar and Sabitr Ali had all along been doing.
The BJP has somewhat succeeded in conveying its message right that the people of Bihar have a historic mandate to them to serve, the core social constituents of both the parties transferred their votes to the other alliance partners without a second thought and thus a split in the alliance would be robbing off on popular faith. Their other contention is that out of this alliance it has been Nitish Kumar who benefited the most–first as Agriculture and Railway Minister in the NDA government at the centre for six years and then as Bihar Chief Minister for last seven years. He has been in power for 13 years of 17 years that he has been in alliance with the NDA, no other leader in the alliance–whether at the national or at the state level–has the same position of privilege. The BJP managed elections or took care of all logistical issues for the alliance during the elections–assembly and parliamentary polls that they fought together.
Nitish Kumar and his supporters may not be talking about it yet, but many in JD(U) feel that by opening talks for a Federal Front or Third Front even before a formally splitting away from the NDA, the Bihar Chief Minister is also throwing his hat as a prime ministerial contender. He is not dumping the BJP to remain a solo regional player confined in Bihar, they say, his ambitions are much larger and could well be inclined to a much fierce and tougher bout with Narendra Modi.
The Third Front or Federal Front, as Mamata Banerjee has named it, is a non-starter for now, but it suits his politics for now. He needs to present himself or his Front as an alternative or challenger to Modi’s onward march.
The Congress sees in him a potential ally. It has already extended an olive branch by calling JD(U) a “like-minded secular party”. Congress’s ally NCP has offered it to join the UPA. For now, the BJP does not mind losing an ally. The party leaders are busy chanting Namo mantra, hoping that this will deliver them the cherished goal.
By Deepak Kumar Rath