Nitish Kumar has spoken and what he had to say is unlikely to have warmed the cockles of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s heart. The Bihar Chief Minister did not name names but the message was as loud as it could get: he would look elsewhere if the BJP was insistent on projecting Narendra Modi as the National Democratic Alliance’s prime ministerial choice. Of course, in politics nothing is final till it is final. Even so, it was evident that Mr. Kumar had crossed a critical threshold in his relationship with his long-term ally. Not only did the Janata Dal (United) chief exude style, there was enough and more symbolism in how and where he made his speech. Mr. Kumar flexed his muscles at a well-attended rally, not in Patna where mustering the crowds would have been easy enough, but in the Capital where the BJP and other national parties are headquartered. He flagged the ‘inclusive’ character of Bihar’s development, thereby thumbing his nose at the BJP’s much-celebrated ‘development’ man. And if doubts persisted, he dispelled them by asserting that he had better credentials to rule at the Centre: “This is only a trailer and it shows that Biharis are ready to rule Delhi in 2014.”
Admittedly this is not the first time the Bihar Chief Minister has sparred and warred with the BJP on the issue of Mr. Modi. He has snubbed the Gujarat Chief Minister publicly on many occasions and warned the BJP against sending him to Bihar to conduct election campaigns. Yet for all that he was at daggers drawn with Mr. Modi, Mr. Kumar, unlike Naveen Patnaik in Orissa, has always stopped short of breaking off with the BJP. The explanation for this lies in the fact that the BJP and the JD(U) are structurally inter-dependent in Bihar, with the former thought to contribute upper caste votes to the latter’s core constituency of OBCs and most backwards. Electorally, the BJP has been a strong performer in the State, making it difficult for the JD(U) to find a ready replacement. But clearly, the moment of reckoning has arrived with Mr. Modi making no secret of his larger national ambitions. Any further ambivalence on Mr. Kumar’s part would have surely emboldened the BJP into assuming that he was ready to bark but not bite. Perhaps the Bihar Chief Minister has learnt a thing or two from Mr. Patnaik, who broke with the BJP over the Kandhamal violence. He did this knowing fully well that the rupture could benefit the Congress, which held the largest share of votes in Orissa. But Mr. Patnaik deduced, and rightly too, that going for broke can fetch blockbuster dividends, provided the decision is seen to be arising from conviction. That’s why Mr. Kumar seems to have decided it pays to stand up and be counted.