The Congress does not believe, even for a moment, that the Janata Dal (United) has any intention of severing its ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party, notwithstanding its virtual veto of the Gujarat Chief Minister as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate. The party sees it, instead, as Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s way of sending a message to his Muslim constituency.
So, the authoritative view is that the Congress will tie-up with Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Lok Jan Shakti Party in Bihar for the next general elections, though opinion in the party has always been divided on whether it should continue with the RJD as its ally or make a bid for the JD(U)’s affections through administrative ploys such as declaring the State backward to make a case for more funds.
Some Congress leaders are even saying that a section of the BJP leadership inimical to Narendra Modi is using Mr. Kumar and his JD(U) colleagues to fight what is an internal battle in the BJP; others simply say Mr. Kumar is fighting for his survival in Bihar. A senior Congress leader said, “If Mr. Modi fails to become the BJP candidate for PM, Nitish Kumar will claim he has singlehandedly achieved that.”
For, the JD(U) national executive’s demand that the BJP, the dominant party in the NDA, declare its prime ministerial candidate well before the next general elections, making it clear that Mr. Modi cannot be that person, is a natural follow-up to the statements Mr. Kumar has been making publicly ever since it seemed as though the BJP would choose the Gujarat Chief Minister as its nominee for PM. Though the JD(U)’s relationship with the BJP has been fruitful thus far, resulting in two consecutive victories in Bihar, in 2005 and 2010, Mr. Kumar has always been careful to keep Mr. Modi at a distance. But were Mr. Modi to be made the PM candidate, it would be hard to keep the stench of the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat against minorities away from the election campaign: in short, Mr. Kumar is worried how a Modi nomination would affect his Muslim vote, especially as in recent months, Mr. Prasad, sensing the chink in the JD(U) armour, has launched an all-out effort to try and stage a political comeback.
Mr. Prasad and, after him, his wife Rabri Devi ruled Bihar without a break from 1990 to 2005. The RJD won a whopping 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2004 — in alliance with the Congress and the LJP — but it has been downhill ever since. It lost power in Bihar in November 2005 and won just three Lok Sabha seats in 2009.
If Mr. Modi, therefore, were to become the NDA’s PM candidate, it would help the RJD embarrass its old friends in the JD(U) while making a bid to win back the Muslim vote.
The Congress too has smelt the same opportunity in the JD(U)’s statements. So, on Sunday, Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, responding to a question on the significance of the JD(U) resolution, talking of the need for a PM nominee whose “secular credibility is beyond doubt,” said: “Other NDA partners need to take their cue from the JD(U) and step up and make their vision of the idea of India clear.” The Congress and other pluralistic parties, he said, stand for a secular vision of India.
Taking this a step further, senior Congress functionary — and former Minister of State for Home — Shakeel Ahmed told The Hindu: “The Congress has never tried to woo Nitish Kumar: it was Mr. Kumar’s chant that L.K. Advani is secular and Narendra Modi is communal. I fail to understand this logic as there is a set pattern in the BJP: when A.B. Vajpayee was on the scene, he stood for soft Hindutva while Advani for hard Hindutva. Now that Vajpayee is unwell, Advani has become a propangandist for soft Hindutva. Mr. Nitish Kumar says Advani is secular while Modi stands for hard Hindutva. In our opinion, Modi is the symptom of the disease that entered the Indian polity with Vajpayee and Advani. How can you treat the symptoms without removing the cause of the disease?”
Of course, it was Mr. Kumar’s Adhikar rally in Delhi last month that triggered off speculation on a possible realignment. The JD(U) leader, praising Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, said he was ready to support whoever granted the special status he had been seeking for his State.
But that statement, Congress leaders say, was just Mr. Kumar’s way of telling the BJP to take his views on Mr. Modi seriously. After all, at the JD(U) executive, general secretary K.C. Tyagi made it a point to mention the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 immediately after a reference to the 2002 anti-Muslim massacre in Gujarat.