By Swapan Dasgupta
Having been shaken by the controversy over an advertisement, the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has now taken to describing the spat that defocused its National Executive meeting in Patna as a proverbial storm in a teacup. It is clear that despite all the talk about maintaining its “self-respect” and not yielding to every tantrum, the BJP has no desire to walk out of the alliance in Bihar and weaken the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) further. Likewise, it is also clear that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is not yet ready to do a Naveen Patnaik on the BJP, yet.
The fragile truce that was negotiated after Mr Kumar took umbrage to an advertisement featuring a year-old photograph of him with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi at the NDA rally in Ludhiana last year, may well withstand the forthcoming Bihar Assembly poll. There is no indication as yet that the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) has the necessary support base to go it alone. And more to the point, the idea of teaming up with the Congress is still not very appetising to a party that swears by Ram Manohar Lohia.
Yet, last week’s kerfuffle in Patna didn’t need a provocation. It had an air of inevitability, advertisement or no advertisement. Aware that every vote counts in the forthcoming Assembly polls, Mr Kumar was concerned that the larger-than-life presence of Mr Modi in Bihar would be used by his opponents to prey on Muslim fears. He needed to do something symbolic to signal that he was in alliance with Sushil Modi, not Narendra Modi.
In politics, it is difficult to be nuanced. There may be a world of difference between the BJP as envisaged by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and that imagined by, say, Murli Manohar Joshi. At a popular level, the BJP is the party of Mr Vajpayee and L.K. Advani but it is also the party of the Gujarati Modi. Indeed, after Mr Vajpayee, Mr Modi is the tallest leader of the BJP. Among the committed BJP voters, Mr Modi’s status is iconic. It was hardly realistic to even imagine that an executive meeting of a national party could be held by excluding its longest-serving chief minister.
To signal to a section of voters that he is all right with the BJP but not Mr Narendra Modi is a difficult exercise in hair-splitting. In a stark world, Mr Kumar had a choice of breaking with the BJP in its entirety or allowing the National Executive meet to pass without controversy. He needn’t have shared a platform with Mr Modi in Patna but he needn’t have rescinded a dinner invitation and then let Sharad Yadav pretend all was well. If placating Muslim sentiment was what Mr Kumar was after, his mission was unsuccessful because it led to nothing tangible and, in fact, allowed Mr Modi to grab the national stage momentarily. In the coming months, especially if the JD(U) are in alliance, Mr Kumar will be taunted by ultra-secularists for being a paper tiger.
Not that the inability to drive home his displeasure with what Mr Modi allegedly represents will necessarily be damaging to Mr Kumar. The Bihar Assembly election will be fought on local issues. The Gujarat chief minister will, in all probability, not even be a campaigner in Bihar. The verdict of the electorate will not be shaped by what happened in Godhra and its aftermath eight years ago. There is invariably a mismatch between what activists imagine is important and what voters believe are the main issues. In any case, while Muslims vote enthusiastically, they are not the only people who vote.
All the same, last week’s almost-crisis in Bihar is a pointer to the persistence of political posturing. Since the tragic riots in Gujarat in 2002, Mr Modi has won two Assembly elections and helped the BJP win a majority of Lok Sabha seats from the state on two separate occasions. Whatever carping noises may be made about his political orientation or even the administration’s culpability in the riots, there is no question that Mr Modi enjoys popular legitimacy in Gujarat. To make his presence in a state a subject of controversy is not merely distasteful but undemocratic. If Mr Modi is anointed the next prime ministerial candidate by the BJP, his credentials will be examined afresh and may become a subject of passionate politics. In the meantime, he is the popularly-elected chief minister of Gujarat and disrespecting him in Patna runs counter to all norms of federalism.
There has been a tendency on the part of some Muslims to use mr Modi as their favourite whipping boy, particularly when invoking the bogey of “Hindu fascism”. Muslim activists have an inalienable right to oppose Mr Modi and even hate him. But it is excessive when all other issues are sought to be buried in the quest for an anti-Modi communal mobilisation.
Since his victory in Gujarat in 2002, Mr Modi has been attempting to put the riots behind him and re-invent himself as the most efficient agent of modernisation and development. Gujarat has been one of India’s most astonishing success stories. Unfortunately, the recognition of that success has been patchy, not least because of an inclination to view the state solely through the prism of one unfortunate development. As a parallel, it would be a travesty if Rajiv Gandhi’s entire political career was seen through the prism of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
By reducing Mr Modi to a caricature, some self-serving politicians may have succeeded in keeping alive a ghetto grounded in fear and insecurity. But using the block vote to intimidate politicians is a dangerous game. It can yield handsome returns when communal polarisation is confined to the margins. However, it would be a sad and dangerous day for India if one religion-based mobilisation produced a countervailing force.
This hasn’t happened so far and hopefully it never will. But playing with fire is potentially hazardous.