Nitish Kumar’s outburst against an ad put out by his alliance partner in Bihar raises some questions. Is he play acting? Or is he about to sever ties with the BJP?
It was meant to be a show of strength for the crumbling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Bihar’s election year. But the BJP’s recently concluded National Executive meeting in Patna only underlined the paradox that the NDA is. It has also ended up leaving everyone guessing whether Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) will go the way of Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
The BJD had broken away from the BJP-led NDA before the state Assembly polls last year, and Patnaik re-won power. In an echo of sorts, Nitish Kumar snubbed the saffron party’s who’s-who. Humiliated, the BJP reacted by saying that going along with the JD-U is not a compulsion, and ought not to cost the party its pride.
It all began with an advertisement in the local papers in Patna. On the first day of the BJP’s two-day meet, the ad (see inset) featured Nitish Kumar holding hands aloft in symbolic solidarity with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi (of the BJP). ‘We welcome Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on his visit to Bihar,’ screamed the ad. It spoke about Gujarat’s help in tackling last year’s Kosi floods in Bihar, and how Gujarat is a ‘home away from home’ for Biharis.
It left Nitish Kumar livid. He launched a scathing attack on Modi at a media event. The ad’s claims, he said, were “in extremely poor taste”. “In our culture,” he bristled, “if someone gives something, he does not brag about it… I will check with my relief department and send back every paisa of unspent money that came from Gujarat. In fact, I will also return the money that has been spent. The people of Bihar are more than capable of taking care of themselves.”
The angry Bihar CM also cancelled a dinner for the state’s top brass and stayed away from the party’s rally on Sunday, 13 June, grumbling all the while about the photo’s use without his consent, even threatening legal action. Sure enough, the Bihar Police raided the ad agency, seizing PDF files and e-mail exchanges related to the ad.
“There is justification for the outburst,” says a source close to Nitish Kumar, “The ad made it seem that the CM is welcoming Modi. There were no ads welcoming anyone else, why Modi?” But if justifications were needed, there exists a bigger one—electoral politics. Bihar’s Assembly election is scheduled later this year, and the JD-U is counting on a chunk of the Muslim vote, estimated at 16 per cent of the state, to retain power in Patna. Cosiness with Modi, under investigation for his alleged role in Gujarat’s 2002 pogrom, is a surefire way to lose this vote.
The Bihar CM has crafted a secular image for himself, distancing himself from Modi in public; he wasn’t invited to campaign in Bihar last time round, despite the BJP-JD-U alliance. The photo in the ad, though, is real. It was taken at an NDA rally in May last year, during the last phase of the alliance’s Lok Sabha campaign, and after months of devoutly refusing to share any dais with Modi. In Nitish Kumar’s estimation, it seems, a stage appearance with him in faraway Punjab after the voting machines in Bihar were sealed would be harmless.
What he didn’t dream of was the event returning to haunt him like Banquo’s ghost at the Patna gathering. In the BJP’s press briefing, its spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy refused to answer questions on the controversy. But in Delhi two days later, the party adopted an aggressive stance. “The photo is not fictitious,” said Rudy, “It has appeared in the media before as well.”
At the BJP rally to mark the end of the meet, LK Advani was the only top leader to refer to Nitish Kumar in his speech. Modi, speaking of Bihar’s turnaround, did not to mention Nitish, lauding the BJP’s Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi for managing Bihar’s finances, instead. The BJP maintains that Nitish overreacted.
“We are not pursuing the matter any further, but it is not our compulsion to go with the JD-U,” Giriraj Singh, a minister in Nitish Kumar’s cabinet and the BJP’s state general secretary, tells Open. Modi, he adds, will indeed campaign in Bihar. “Whether Nitish Kumar likes him or not is not my subject. We are ready to face the consequences,” he says, underlining the state unit’s hard stance.
Nitish Kumar’s outburst has attracted barbs from the Congress, which calls it all a farce, with the Bihar CM playing his usual posturing game to fool secular voters. “He has worked with the BJP for the last four-and-a-half years. There is no difference between the BJP and Modi… This was to fool the people of the state,” in the words of AICC general secretary in-charge of Bihar, Mukul Wasnik.
The JD-U’s moderates, nonetheless, are happy with their leader’s snub of Modi. The BJP’s hardliners are pleased that the party defended Modi. That the controversy has thrown up both as ‘heroes’ for the time being only highlights the contradictions within the NDA, as also a nagging question for the BJP: will Nitish Kumar go the Naveen Patnaik way?