Sparring partners

Print edition : July 16, 2010
in Patna and New Delhi

A BJP advertisement that offended the JD(U).-PTI

IF the Bihar unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] was on facebook or any other social networking site, it would have been compelled to declare its relationship status as complicated.

Shatrughan Sinha, actor and BJP Member of Parliament from Patna Sahib, took recourse to his trademark Bollywood witticism while commenting on the developments in Bihar, particularly the spat between the saffron party and its associate in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Janata Dal (United). Sinha went on to add that he expected this status to continue for some more time, given the overwhelming confusion in the leadership.

The actor-turned-politician's detractors in the BJP do not credit him with any great political understanding, but there is little doubt that his remark is on target. Indeed, an overwhelming confusion has become the hallmark of the BJP in Bihar.

The party top brass held a series of inconclusive meetings with the leaders from the Bihar unit over three days in the third week of June. One section of the State unit demanded immediate termination of the alliance with the JD(U) in Bihar, while another advised caution and suggested that some slights should be ignored for the sake of the alliance.

The central leadership sought, meanwhile, to work out a face-saving formula, but there was no clarity on what this should be.

It all started with the BJP's National Executive meeting in Patna on June 12 and 13. In the days leading to the conclave, advertisements appeared in several Bihar newspapers extolling the governance skills and personal virtues of Narendra Modi, the BJP Chief Minister of Gujarat. These hailed Modi as a model administrator who had brought all-round development to Gujarat and said that Bihar should strive to emulate Gujarat's example. One of the advertisements made a special reference to Gujarat's relief contribution at the time of the floods in the Kosi river.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi at the oath-taking ceremony of the new Chief Justice of the Patna High Court, Rekha Manharlal Doshit, on June 21.-RANJEET KUMAR

The JD(U) perceived this as a direct affront. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar criticised the advertisements and cancelled the dinner he had planned for the participants of the BJP conclave. Modi and his party colleagues retaliated in the public meeting held as part of the National Executive by praising Bihar's Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi as the driving force of development in Bihar.

After a few days of silence, Nitish Kumar returned the money that the Gujarat government had given for flood relief Rs.5 crore. Sushil Kumar Modi responded by cancelling his participation in the Nitish Kumar-led campaign highlighting the gains of the government. After this, discussions started in the BJP on whether the party should stick to or part ways with the JD(U).

All the time, in their public statements BJP leaders kept repeating that the BJP-JD(U) alliance was good for the people of Bihar and proper governance of the State but that did not mean that the party would compromise on its self-esteem to maintain the alliance. However, some BJP leaders feel that the party's self-esteem has already been dragged through dirt by Nitish Kumar.

The BJP's support base in Bihar consists mainly of upper-caste communities such as Thakurs, Bhumihars and Brahmins, while the JD(U) has a following among many Other Backward Class (OBC) communities, Most Backward Caste (MBC) communities and a section of Muslims . Over the last five years, the JD(U)'s support base has steadily spread while the BJP's has diminished, especially with the return of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to power at the Centre in 2009. A large number of upper-caste voters are moving back to the Congress. In all this, the BJP is undoubtedly the loser. A breakdown of the alliance with the JD(U) could also mean the virtual end of the NDA in Bihar. The BJP, it is obvious, needs the alliance to stay afloat in the State's politics.

On the other hand, the JD(U) leadership, including Nitish Kumar, feels that even a break with the BJP will work out in the party's favour, especially if it takes on someone like Narendra Modi. The latter is widely perceived as having engineered the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat. If Nitish Kumar breaks with the BJP on an issue involving the Gujarat Chief Minister, the JD(U) will only strengthen its position among Muslims, who account for 16 per cent of the voters in Bihar. As of now, this vote bank is split between parties such as Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), the Congress and the JD(U). A JD(U) that comes out of the BJP alliance fighting Narendra Modi will be favoured by Muslim voters.

According to a leader close to Nitish Kumar, the JD(U) is confident of reaching within striking distance of power in the next Assembly elections even if it contests on its own. With the additional Muslim minority and secular votes that we would accrue by breaking with the BJP, the JD(U) could well repeat what Naveen Patnaik did in Orissa in the 2009 Assembly elections, a senior JD(U) leader told Frontline. Patnaik had forsaken a long-standing alliance with the BJP to go it alone and his party, the Biju Janata Dal, came back to power. The JD(U) leader said that such a victory in the 2010 Assembly elections would naturally propel Nitish Kumar to a greater role in national politics, perhaps even as a possible non-Congress, non-BJP prime ministerial candidate.

With just about four months to go for the Assembly elections, developing a face-saving formula is indeed important for the BJP. According to sources in both the BJP and the JD(U), Nitish Kumar has agreed to cease his hostile manoeuvres if the BJP promises not to field Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi in the election campaign in Bihar. While no leader was ready to confirm this officially, JD(U) leader and Rajya Sabha member Shivanand Tiwari said, Nitish, and Nitish alone, will decide who will campaign for the NDA.

A section of BJP leaders feels that Nitish Kumar has unleashed an elaborate political game plan to browbeat the BJP into accepting fewer seats to contest. A decision was taken at a meeting between the central and State BJP leaders that the party would not contest fewer than the 105 Assembly seats it contested in alliance with the JD(U) in October 2005. It remains to be seen whether the BJP will be able to stand its ground. At the moment, despite the brave words, the party appears confused.

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