The Bharatiya Janata Party and its principal ally, the Janata Dal (United), have warred and sparred before — and almost always over Narendra Modi. With the general election looming large, it was a given that Nitish Kumar’s digs at Mr. Modi would become progressively more unsubtle. At a rally in Delhi last month, the JD(U) chief had lampooned Mr. Modi’s model of “skewed” development and showed off his own ‘inclusive” strengths vis-à-vis the Gujarat Chief Minister. Last week, a JD(U) spokesperson taunted Mr. Modi on his inability to contain the 2002 anti-Muslim violence. Mr. Kumar’s party has since passed a ‘shock and awe’ resolution asking the BJP to name a “secular” candidate to lead the National Democratic Alliance into the coming election. The BJP has retaliated by telling its partner it had no business tarnishing Mr. Modi. Admittedly, the resolution, adopted at the JD(U)’s national executive, is the strongest attack yet by the party on the Gujarat Chief Minister. However, there is a catch here. The JD(U) has set the year-end, still some eight months away, as the deadline for the BJP to meet its demand. If a week is too long in politics, eight months is long enough for the political world to turn topsy-turvy. For the moment, the BJP-JD(U) mutual name-calling must be understood for what it is : shadow-boxing between two partners each of whom has a separate electoral constituency to address.
The Bihar Chief Minister has adroitly walked the tight-rope in his relationship with the BJP. The JD(U) is among the BJP’s oldest allies. It stayed with the party through the 2002 anti-Muslim violence and stuck by it even as ally after worried ally quit the NDA citing the BJP’s ‘communal’ agenda. Astonishingly, Mr. Kumar managed not to be tainted by association. Far from it, he built for the JD(U) an electoral base made up of Muslims and Other Backward Classes. The BJP in Bihar added upper caste votes to the alliance, making it structurally sound. Mr. Kumar dealt with the ideological contradiction by asking his constituency to keep faith in his own unassailable inclusive credentials. Towards this end, he deliberately and repeatedly snubbed Mr. Modi, ensuring that Bihar remained out of bounds for the Gujarat leader. Obviously, the strategy cannot work in a situation where Mr. Modi becomes the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate. The closer a political party is to an election, the more it has to hear out its rank and file. It is the BJP’s compulsion to assign a larger role to Mr. Modi and it is the JD(U)’s necessity to keep him out. The BJP could go it alone, gambling on a possible Modi wave. But the signal it would send then is that it is open to losing its ‘secular’ partners.