Seventeen shades of grey

Between tricky posturing and bitter realism, there are too many dubious shades of grey. Nitish’s anti-Modi ‘secular’ stance might appear a game-changer, but for the JD(U) and BJP, the diabolical game is still unfolding

Akash Bisht Delhi

On April 14, when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar got up to address the Janata Dal (JD-U) conference, no one really expected what was to follow. The previous day, JD(U) president Sharad Yadav seemed content with the status quo and his party’s time-tested 17-year-old relationship with the BJP. Indeed, Nitish not only questioned the BJP’s narrative of governance woven around Gujarat, but also the high voltage campaign to push Narendra Modi as the candidate for PM of the NDA. Why is Nitish so bitter with the BJP after cohabiting for 17 long years? And is his anger real? Or, is it mere political posturing?

To be fair to the Bihar chief minister, this is not the first time he has shown discomfort towards Modi. During the assembly elections in 2010, he had said categorically that he did not want Modi to campaign in Bihar. His statement had set the cat amongst the BJP leadership but, true to his wont, he did not really make it a prestige issue. Later, BJP leaders made light of his opposition to the swaggering persona of a muscle-flexing Modi. That was some time ago.

Nitish may have supped with the BJP, but he seems deeply uncomfortable with the thought of Modi stealing a march over him. After all, he has his ambitions too! What he has to ascertain is, can these ambitions gain fruition without the BJP? This is a difficult question taxing his party workers as well as the BJP.

In the current scenario, Nitish’s public opposition to the BJP has begun to play out against different backdrops. At the JD(U) office in Delhi, several workers are discussing the “increasing influence” of the party among youngsters in Delhi. “Our membership has crossed 10,000 in Delhi and most of them are youth. We are gaining ground in Delhi University,” said a JD(U) worker. A man in crisp white kurta-pyjama laughed: “Seven hundred votes out of 50,000-60,000 in Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU) polls, and you are saying that the party is gaining a foothold in Delhi University? You must be joking.” A JD(U) worker hit back at the RSS “khakiknickerwallahs” saying the BJP has no democracy and it was prostrating itself in front of Modi. Such ‘internal discussions’ are getting uglier by the day in Delhi and in Bihar.

Besides, BJP cadres are in no mood to compromise on Modi’s candidature while JD(U) leaders claim that they would go to any extent to stop an “apradhi” (criminal) from becoming PM. “Nitishji has made it clear that the person who is willing to lead this country should be ready to wear both a Muslim skullcap and a Hindu tika. He should be a democrat who believes in the diversity of the country. The days of Emergency are over. We will not back down on this. the BJP might be crushed under the debt of Modi, not us,” a top JD(U) leader told Hardnews.

Attacking Nitish, many BJP leaders argue, “Where was his secularism when the Godhra attack happened in 2002?” BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi told reporters in Delhi, “So far as any allegation or accusation against our CM (Modi) is concerned, we completely abhor that and Nitish is nobody whose certificate is required so far as that particular aspect is concerned. In 2002 also, Nitish was a part of our government. During the Sabarmati Express incident, he was the rail minister,”

Another BJP leader told Hardnews, “Why aren’t people asking Nitish, whatever happened to his secularism in 2002? Why didn’t he resign like Ram Vilas Paswan? So what has happened in these 11 years that has made him more secular and Modi more communal? This whole talk of communalism vs secularism is meaningless.”

BJP cadres are in no mood to compromise on Modi’s candidature while JD(U) leaders claim that they would go to any extent to stop an ‘apradhi’ (criminal) from becoming a PM

Explaining the internal contradictions, Dipankar Bhattacharya, general secretary, CPI- ML(Liberation), argues that the whole rift is eyewash. He questioned Nitish’s motives in being a part of the NDA alliance since 2002. “He sometimes gives time to the BJP to make the decision and then he says that this whole thing is a media creation. If this rift is over Narendra Modi and 2002 then I must say that Nitish is waking up very late. It was clear what role Modi played in the genocide of 2002; so what has Nitish been doing in the last 11 years? If he is serious about this, then he must quit the NDA and apologise to the people of India and Bihar.” 

Political observers predict that if the alliance falls apart, the JD(U) will suffer the most. Nitish’s claims of uplifting and uniting the votebank of Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs), Maha Dalits and Pasmanda Muslims might fall flat. In such a scenario, it is widely perceived that the BJP will have an upper hand as it has been successful in making deep inroads in Bihar with its Hindutva agenda and with the RSS in the vanguard. Nitish has never really objected to the overt and covert mobilization and polarizations unleashed by the RSS under his regime.

Bhattacharya claims that Nitish’s government has been promoting and strengthening the Sangh Parivar and is trying to shift the agenda. “The RSS has been a part of the Nitish government and they have spent days and nights to appease communal and feudal forces. Everyone knows that even when the RSS is out of the government they systematically advance their agenda. Imagine what they can do when they are in power. Therefore, this rhetoric of communalism and secularism is a farce,” he says.

JD(U) leaders assert that if the alliance falls apart they will still have the support of the three communities — EBCs, Maha Dalits and Pasmanda Muslims — that constitute a considerable chunk of the electorate. The anti-Modi posturing is also to preserve this alliance, especially the Muslim support base.

Dalits constitute 42 per cent of the total electoral count, and Muslims account for nearly 25 per cent of Bihar’s population. In the 2010 assembly elections, the vote share of the NDA was 39 per cent — 22.5 per cent voted for the JD(U) and 16.5 per cent for the BJP — while the Congress, RJD and LJP got 33 per cent. Significantly, only 72 per cent voted for the two major coalitions and 38 per cent voted for other parties, including the Left parties and independents. Hence, a small shift of voters towards any political outfit can change the course of Bihar’s electoral politics.

In addition, in 2010, 76 lakh voters voted for the RJD and LJP in comparison to the NDA’s 1.13 crore.  A swing of 2-3 per cent can tilt the tide in Lalu Yadav and Paswan’s favour. This has been the major bone of contention for both Nitish and the BJP. And with Lalu and Paswan gaining ground with big rallies, their vote consolidation can’t be completely ruled out. “The entire media is working at the behest of Nitish, but the people who matter are mostly illiterate. They are not reading these biased reports. Democracy can’t be run by partisan media coverage. People want a leader who can share their pain and tragedies,” says the RJD MP from Buxar, Jagdanand Singh.      

Ground reports suggest that all these three sections are miffed with Nitish’s style of governance and feel betrayed. “He wouldn’t get backward votes like he got earlier. People at the lower level are upset with his policies. Kewal daawe hain kaagaz par. (These are claims only on paper.) The education system has collapsed and the entire state machinery is full of corrupt officers,” asserts Upendra Khushwaha, a friend-turned-foe of Nitish.

Khushwaha adds that Nitish had earlier declared that Bihar will become a developed state by 2015, but people are still migrating, especially the poor, and there is no electricity in most parts of the state. After quitting his Rajya Sabha seat and the JD(U)’s primary membership, Khushwaha has recently floated a new outfit, the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, aiming to oust the Nitish regime. He is being considered a possible ‘backward ally’ of the BJP if the NDA alliance falls apart.

Says Bhattacharya: “After years of protracted struggles by the CPI-ML (Liberation), voting rights were given to these economically and socially backward sections. And now they claim that they constitute their vote bank. This is ironical.”

Many Bihar politicians told Hardnews that bitterness and bickering have been a norm between the two parties in Bihar. “This tussle reminds me of the fixed noora khushti where two wrestlers pretend to fight each other with a basic understanding that no one will emerge a winner. Neither Nitish nor Modi are inclusive,” says Jagdanand. Taking a dig at Modi and his obsession for big business corporates, Jagdanand says the entire country should oppose a model that is a “mistress” of corporates and that this whole fight over secularism is merely to create a mirage. “Yeh to andhe langde ki ladai hai, ek ke pass janadhar nahin hai aur doosre ke upar dangon ki badnaami hai. Ladai to bas charcha mein bane rehne ka khel hain,” he alleged. (This is a contest between a blind and lame man. One does not have a mandate, the other is tainted with riots. The fight is to remain in the public eye.)

Political observers in Bihar call Nitish an opportunist who dumps his friends for new allies, chasing lucrative pastures. “Nitish has always followed the principle of use and throw, be it in the party or with organizations. For years, he has enjoyed the fruits of power with the help of the BJP, and now, suddenly, he finds them communal. Without the BJP, he couldn’t have become the CM,” says Khushwaha. “One reason for this posturing is his ambition of becoming PM. If Modi becomes the PM then his dream of being the first OBC to reach the highest office would be quashed. For Nitish, Modi is a threat and that is why this drama about secularism. Plus, he has become autocratic and believes that he is above the party. If someone is doing harm to JD(U), then it is Nitish.” 

Sources within the JD(U) corroborate his claims. Some are of the view that Nitish has stopped listening to insiders. They claim that he consulted no one about his “anti-Modi speech” in Delhi and even Sharad Yadav is feeling left out. It is alleged that differences have reached a point of no return and Yadav, who is considered close to the BJP, is peeved with the content and timing of the speech.

“He has been the one defending the party’s stance ever since. There are strong rumours of the party splitting before the Lok Sabha elections as some senior leaders are miffed with Nitish’s high-handedness. Even in Bihar, the JD(U) has become a fiefdom of Nitish and no one can dare raise any question about his style of working,” informs a senior JD(U) leader.

In 2010, 76 lakh voters voted for the RJD and LJP in comparison to NDA’s 1.13 crore.  A swing of 2-3 per cent can tilt the tide in Lalu and Paswan’s favour. This has been the major bone of contention for both Nitish and the BJP. And with Lalu and Paswan gaining ground with big rallies, their vote consolidation can’t be completely ruled out

Interestingly, during his speech in Delhi, Nitish also targetted the ‘Gujarat model’ of development that Modi has been so vehemently espousing as a miraculous answer to all of India’s ills. “Modi is thinking that Gujarat is India but he should tour the country to understand it and then he will realize that his model is not enough. One coat doesn’t fit everyone. In his model, the growth is exclusive while the Bihar model is inclusive and this is the kind of model that this country needs,” says JD(U) general secretary Shivanand Tewari.

He adds that Modi only talks the language of corporates and has never spoken about farmer suicides, malnourishment, or the human development index, including other social indicators on the ground, such as poverty.

Dipankar argues that the Bihar model, being inclusive, is bunkum. “I don’t see different models existing in different states or at the Centre. The fact of the matter is that each government, be it a central or state government, is following the same set of policies that are pro-corporate, pro-World Bank and pro-WTO.”  He says that Nitish and his government are making false claims of their model being an ideal model. “The people of Bihar are feeling excluded. When they demand better governance, they are being misled by this whole issue of secularism vs communalism and of a special status for Bihar.”

Meanwhile, the Congress is quietly enjoying the war of words between the two allies in the NDA. It branded Nitish and Modi as a “symptom” of communalism. “One should ask Nitish, is the BJP secular? If yes, then who were the people involved in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, or the carnage of 2002? JD(U)’s ideology is not clear. Are LK Advani, Uma Bharti, Murli Manohar Joshi secular? They are in alliance with the BJP that is spreading communal poison in Bihar and national politics and they are talking of secularism,” says Ashok Chaudhury, Bihar Congress Committee president.

By raising the agenda of special status, Nitish is diverting the whole issue. Says Chaudhary, “He is playing politics. Why didn’t he raise the issue of special status when he was a powerful minister in the NDA government, when Jharkhand was created and all industries were included in the newly formed state? This ploy of special status and secularism is being created to divert attention from the misrule
in Bihar.”

BJP workers in Bihar, speaking off-the-record, spew venom on their 17-year-old ally who, they believe, has done more damage to Modi than what the Congress has been able to do since 2002. “We should dump Nitish to make him realise that he is a nobody without BJP’s the support. We are ready to sit in the opposition to make sure that he is confined to the dustbin of Bihar’s politics,” says a senior BJP leader. He also blames Nitish for taking the credit for all the work that the NDA has done in the state. He is bitter that Nitish has become the mascot of all these schemes when it was the coalition that pursued all these “pro-people” policies.

However, BJP’s Bihar president, Mangal Pandey, seems more nuanced: “Credit goes to both the parties for all the schemes and no one individual can stake claim to that.” He asserts that that the politics of coalition cannot continue with the politics of veto and an old ally like the JD(U) should recognize that.

Clearly, between tricky posturing and bitter realism, there are too many dubious shades of grey. Nitish’s anti-Modi ‘secular’ stance might appear a game-changer, but the dicey chess game is still unfolding. Indeed, between Nitish and Modi, the NDA might find itself in an inevitable trap. Only time will tell, who blows the first whistle. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2013