Seventeen years ago, the Janata Dal (United)’s forerunner, the socialist Samata Party, stepped out of its ideological comfort zone to extend support to the Bharatiya Janata Party, thereby bringing the latter into the political mainstream. Today, that relationship has ended, not on a point of principle, though that is the JD(U)’s claimed reason, but because of one individual: Narendra Modi. There cannot be a more eloquent statement on the Gujarat Chief Minister’s disquieting effect than the fact that the JD(U) has chosen an uncertain future in Bihar, and by implication nationally, over continuing in the National Democratic Alliance under Mr. Modi’s possible leadership. Admittedly, the BJP has so far not named Mr. Modi its prime ministerial candidate, a point editorially underscored by Organiser, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s mouthpiece. The troubling aspect of the Sangh’s open orchestration of the BJP’s internal matters aside, the intervention came at a time when the alliance was beyond rescue. Besides, the Sangh was being disingenuous in rebuking the JD(U) for presuming Mr. Modi would run for Prime Minister, at the same time declaring him the fittest to fill the slot.
The JD(U) initially dismissed Mr. Modi’s elevation to the BJP’s campaign committee chief as an internal party affair. However, Mr. Modi’s cheerleaders and the party itself behaved as if he was already in the role of presumptive prime ministerial nominee. Lal Krishna Advani’s resignation came as confirmation for Nitish Kumar that what he feared would happen. Dramatic as the rupture is, it raises some unavoidable questions. Mr. Kumar did not just befriend the BJP when it was friendless, he stuck by the party through the 2002 anti-Muslim violence and even later when a near exodus reduced the alliance to a rump. The explanation for this lies in part in the electoral compatibility of the BJP and the JD(U), which together won two spectacular State elections. Secondly, Mr. Kumar dominated the BJP in Bihar, ensuring that his own secular appeal prevailed over his partner’s Hindutva image. The Bihar Chief Minister understood, and correctly too, that for Hindi heartland minorities there could be no negotiation on Mr. Modi’s unacceptability. Consequently, Mr. Modi became a metaphor for divisive, sectarian politics in a State ruled by the JD((U) and the BJP. There was no way Mr. Kumar could have continued this balancing act with Mr. Modi in a pivotal position in the NDA. The fracturing of the NDA immediately on his promotion returns the BJP to that point in history when it was proud of its ‘splendid isolation’. Unfortunately for the party, the message might not go down well with its potential allies.