Friday, April 19, 2013

Modi is Nitish’s fig leaf to go it alone in Bihar

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance in Bihar has endured for nearly two decades. Forged in the mid-1990s as a united front to take on Lalu Prasad Yadav who dominated Bihar politics after his initial victory over the Congress in 1990, the alliance was much more than a mere seat-sharing arrangement: it was also a social alliance. The BJP brought in the upper castes and a sprinkling of Backward castes, and the JD(U) complemented it with substantial support from the non-Yadav backward castes. In Nitish Kumar the alliance found a leader who had the right caste credentials and a personality that juxtaposed well against the flippancy and buffoonery of Lalu. After initial setbacks, the alliance came into its own and won two consecutive Assembly elections under Nitish’s leadership. 

Thanks to the seminal contribution of, first, George Fernandes and, subsequently, Sharad Yadav, the alliance also worked at the Centre. There were points of disagreement between the two parties but these were subsumed under the larger umbrella of anti-Congressism, an article of faith with Ram Manohar Lohia, the main inspiration of those leaders who had cut their teeth in the socialist and JP movements.  

The question that naturally arises is: why is this hitherto stable and time-tested alliance suddenly on the verge of collapse?

To blame Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for provoking a crisis in distant Bihar is facile, unless we are inclined to believe that the very idea of Modi is life-threatening to Nitish. So far, and despite many sniper attacks by B-grade politicians who claim to speak for the Bihar Chief Minister, Modi has not uttered a single word in retaliation. Despite the implicit humiliation, he silently bore Nitish’s cancellation of a dinner for the BJP National Executive in Patna three years ago and obeyed the party leadership’s directive to not campaign in Bihar’s Assembly election. Modi has steadfastly refused to engage in a verbal slug-fest with Nitish.

Nitish unfortunately has not exercised the same degree of restraint. Apart from his tantrums centred on Modi’s physical presence in Bihar, he went public some six months ago in a newspaper interview that more or less said that Modi would be unacceptable to the NDA as a national leader because he lacked the necessary ‘secular’ credentials. For the past six months, his spokespersons have repeated this ad infinitum on TV—some with a measure of subtlety and others with raw bluntness. Indeed, while the rest of the national Opposition concentrated on highlighting the UPA’s non-governance and corruption, Modi became the unending preoccupation of the JD(U) leaders from Bihar.

On his part, Nitish excelled in double-speak. He supported Pranab Mukherjee as President but was happy to endorse Jaswant Singh’s candidature as vice-president. He invoked Bihari pride with his demand for a ‘special status’ for the state but also indicated that he would support any government that would do justice to Bihar. When this utterance was naturally interpreted to mean that he was making overtures to the Congress, Nitish was quick to inform concerned BJP leaders that anti-Congressism was in his DNA. Last Satuday, he told BJP leaders that he owed his great success to the NDA and that his concern over Modi was due to his worry that under the Gujarat leader the alliance wouldn’t be able to maximise its gains. Yet, the very next day he went ballistic with a public attack on Modi. At the same time, he set a December deadline and didn’t discourage Sharad Yadav from trying to cool tempers.

Unfortunately, this over-cleverness has led to a reaction. Earlier, BJP leaders were inclined to give Nitish benefit of the doubt. Today, they are beginning to feel that the pro-Modi hotheads in the Bihar state BJP were right in claiming that Nitish has all along been planning an exit strategy. Today, the mood in the Bihar BJP has turned virulently anti-Nitish and even the party’s Central leadership appear to have concluded that the alliance is for all practical purposes over.

There are enough pointers to suggest that Nitish was planning to emulate Naveen Patnaik in 2009 and leave the BJP in the lurch at the last minute, a move that would have had a devastating effect on the NDA’s morale. Yet, apart from the fact that Nitish may not like Modi, what is the rationale behind his bid to divorce the BJP?

Commentators have invariably spoken about the importance of the 16 per cent or so Muslim vote. The bulk of that vote was earlier secured by Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan’s party. The percentage of Muslim votes for the BJP-JD(U) alliance is, ironically, at about the same level as that secured by Modi in Gujarat. If Muslims haven’t been the key to Nitish’s electoral success, why is he afraid of a post-Modi minority backlash?

Nitish, it would seem, has had enough of coalition politics in Bihar and is now anxious to strike out on his own. Invoking ‘secularism’ and securing a Muslim shift from Lalu to JD(U) may, in theory, compensate for the loss of BJP votes. But there is a formidable hidden cost. By injecting identity politics into a debate that had hitherto been confined to strategies of development and economic growth, Nitish may have done a great disservice to the Muslim community. For electoral ends he has cast them as a community that insists on a veto. What if this perception generates a backlash? 

Asian Age, April 19, 2013

No comments: