Last June, the Bharatiya Janata Party's national executive meeting at Delhi was held under the shadow of defeat in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. The mood, reflected in the speeches as well as the resolutions, was introspective, with references to the party's “shortcomings” that needed to be “rectified.” This year, the BJP — which has since acquired a new President with Nitin Gadkari replacing a somewhat ineffectual Rajnath Singh — would have liked to project a more united and assertive face. Indeed, the three resolutions — on the growing Maoist threat, the United Progressive Alliance government's performance, and the Centre's “assault” on federalism — bear a combative stamp. But this year's party jamboree, held in Patna with an eye on the Bihar Assembly election due later this year, was overshadowed by unanticipated developments which deflected attention from the BJP's fierce criticism of the UPA and ended up creating a strain between the BJP and its senior partner in the State government — the Janata Dal (United).
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's outburst about newspaper advertisements sponsored by Narendra Modi's admirers (one of which showed the Gujarat Chief Minister and Mr. Kumar hand in hand in an expression of solidarity) and his abrupt cancellation of a dinner he was to host for BJP leaders seem to have been calculated moves. With elections round the corner in a State with a 16 per cent Muslim population, the JD(U) needs to retain the traditional support it has enjoyed among the backward or pasmanda Muslims. By vociferously distancing itself from a hardliner in the BJP such as Mr. Modi, the JD (U) is at once stressing its secular credentials and underlining the fact that its relationship with the BJP is forged by expediency rather than ideology. While Mr. Kumar's flare-up has led to speculation that he could be doing a Naveen Patnaik – the Orissa Chief Minister dumped the BJP just before the 2009 election – the political arithmetic in Bihar is stacked differently. It is unlikely the JD(U) will risk challenging its principal enemy, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, on its own; also, the RJD would be even harder to beat in the event there is a revival of its alliance with the Congress. The ‘Nitish-Modi controversy' exposes more than just the gulf between the BJP and the JD(U). At a different level, it draws attention to a deep-seated internal contradiction within the National Democratic Alliance, which is made up largely of regional partners who are with the BJP only because they are principally opposed to some other party (usually, the Congress). The instability of the NDA, which has witnessed at least 10 parties leaving it since it was founded in 1998, is a reflection of this very contradiction.