Over the past fortnight, the Janata Dal(United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party have practised a form of brinkmanship politics that is not unusual when partners have to go to elections with separate agendas. The latest in the long-winding saga is a possible rapprochement between the sniping allies. Though ideologically incompatible, the JD(U) and the BJP have proved to be a great political fit, with the JD(U)'s OBC base perfectly complementing the BJP's forward caste core vote. Yet politics is not business where tremendous care is taken to preserve a successful model. Like so many of the BJP's other past and present partners, the JD(U) has the self-image of a secular-liberal party practising an inclusive agenda. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is ambitious, image-conscious, and would like nothing more than to be able to win the upcoming Assembly election on his own terms. Naveen Patnaik in Orissa went through the same tensions with the BJP until, on the eve of the 2009 general election, he boldly threw off the Hindutva albatross, striking pay dirt with the gamble. Mr. Patnaik's was a swift, surgical operation that carried conviction with the voters. Unfortunately, Mr. Kumar has played the on-again, off-again game far too long for the electorate not to spot the opportunism in it. There was much talk of a JD(U)-BJP split around the time of the Biju Janata Dal-BJP break-up. Mr. Kumar volleyed and thundered but, as always, withdrew from the brink, going on to pose with none other than Narendra Modi at an election rally in Ludhiana.
It is no small irony that today the same photograph — used as advertisement by the BJP — has caused a fresh rift between the partners. Mr. Kumar is justified in taking the BJP to task for the advertisement, which the party appears to have released without the Chief Minister's express consent. Yet even he cannot deny that in 2009 he shared a political platform with Mr. Modi, and seemed none too concerned when the photograph in question appeared in print. Further, Mr. Kumar was a Cabinet Minister at the Centre at the time of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat. If the Bihar Chief Minister is serious about his secular credentials, he ought to go beyond grandstanding. Gestures such as returning the Gujarat government's Rs.5 crore flood relief assistance can backfire, more so should the JD(U) and the BJP jointly fight the election. For its part, the BJP ought to reflect seriously on its inability to retain allies, the latest instance of this being the unedifying drama played out in Jharkhand. Insider Jawant Singh might have beenfloored by Nitin Gadkari's charm offensive, but external allies willwant verifiable proof that the party has disinvested from its divisive agenda.